STANFORD, Calif. — With how close the Bellarmine Bells and Mitty Monarchs were all season, it was only fitting for them to go down to the final moments once again.
The two teams, nearly inseparable throughout the season in the WCAL standings and in head-to-head matchups, reconvened to settle the score on Friday night, with Mitty prevailing 44-41 in the CCS Open Division Championship Game before an estimated crowd of over 4,000 at Maples Pavilion.
“We’ve pretty much split with them every year, so we never really had our own championship and our own statement,” said Owen Browne. “We’re the best team in the CCS, and we feel like we’re the best team in the state.”
Browne had just three points but dished out four assists, including one on the go-ahead 3-pointer by Mason Ryan with just under three-and-a-half minutes to go. Top-seeded Mitty (23-4) then did something exceptionally rare on the following possession by scoring on an inbound play as Browne found an open Marcus Greene for a 41-37 advantage.
What ensued in the following minutes was a sequence of events that the Bells have become all too familiar with in the past few years, a combination of poor shooting and questionable officiating. Friday marked the fourth Open Division Championship defeat for Bellarmine (23-4) in five years, and the last three have been especially painful.
Greene forced a miss to preserve the four-point lead, and after the Monarchs ran the shot clock down but came up empty as Mikey Mitchell missed a 3-pointer, Ryan Kiachian drew contact from a double-team but got no whistle. The aggressive physical play continued at the other end as Quinn Denker came up with a steal, but he surrendered possession on his way down the court, with the ensuing turnover leading to a Greene steal and dunk for a six-point lead.
“It just felt great getting a whole back-and-forth play,” said Greene, who scored eight points. “I’m trying to do everything, give as much as I can to my team.”
The Bells called timeout with 45.6 left after a Kiachian lay-in made it a four-point game, and after another steal, they used their final timeout with 37.2 remaining, a risk they felt was worth taking considering their personnel.
“We wanted our best offensive players on the floor so we’d score,” head coach Patrick Schneider said.
Not only would the Bells fail to score as Greene played exceptional defense on Kiachian despite giving up six inches, they’d further feel the effects of burning that last timeout in the closing moments. Nigel Burris made one of two free throws with 30.4 left for a five-point lead, and though Kiachian would quickly score at the other end on a two-handed dunk, the ball rolled away. As third-seeded Bellarmine had no means of stopping the clock, Mitty was perfectly content to run down as much time as possible, and with the referees neglecting to call a delay of game despite the leisurely pace, the Monarchs ran off substantial time before calling a timeout to set up an inbound they were satisfied with.
“We didn’t think they could take 10 seconds off,” Schneider said of the late-game clock debacle.
Burris was fouled again, and after he missed the front end of a 1-and-1, the Bells got free in transition and got a 3-point attempt from Kyle Lewis in the corner, but his shot missed. Kiachian managed to grab the rebound and tried to set up Anthony Piro for another shot at the tie, but Piro had left his spot in the corner to try to get said rebound, and Kiachian’s pass ended up out of bounds as the Bellarmine supporters looked on in disbelief.
With 1.5 seconds left, all the Monarchs needed to do was inbound the ball, and after calling a timeout to narrowly avoid a five-second violation, they got it in to Burris, who started to celebrate with his teammates as time expired. In his first year at Mitty, Burris, a San Francisco native who transferred from Stuart Hall before his junior year, was fully immersed in the rivalry with Bellarmine, as indicated by his role in the celebrations.
“Everyone’s been supportive of me on this journey, transferring from a small school,” he said. “I love it here.”
The postgame festivities were a familiar scene for the Monarchs, claiming their fourth Open Division title in the eight years the tournament has been contested, though the current seniors were freshmen the last time they had won it and none of their players were on the floor in their most recent appearance before Friday night, a 2018 loss to the Bells.
“It just speaks volumes for the players that come through this program and what they’ve done,” head coach Tim Kennedy said. “This is another group that’s left a special legacy.”
Not only was Mitty’s jubilation and Bellarmine’s heartbreak a standard theme, so was the manner in which the two teams got to the destination. In the prior two meetings this year, the victors had taken control of the game with a big third quarter, and Friday was no different as the Monarchs dominated the period, 17-6. Mitty shot just 7-for-25 in the first half and committed an uncharacteristic 10 turnovers over those 16 minutes but came out swinging in the third, with Greene knocking down a 3-pointer and Burris driving around a defender to cut the lead to 21-20. Mitchell, who shot just 1-for-5 in the first two quarters and picked up two early fouls to the tune of “overrated” chants from the Bellarmine student section, hit a three off a pick-and-pop from Browne to put his team in front, and Browne sent another assist to Burris to extend the run to 10-0.
“We talked about it at halftime, shoot confidently,” Kennedy said.
Bellarmine would draw even at 25 on an Ian Elam putback and Josiah Ajiake reverse layup, and the teams would trade baskets on the following possessions as Aidan Burke hit a short pull-up jumper to put Mitty back ahead before Denker sank an 18-footer with a defender in his face.
Just as the Monarchs had started the third on a roll, they closed it in stellar fashion as well, with Greene making a perfect pass to Ryan for a 29-27 advantage. They’d inbound with 36.3 left in the quarter and a full shot clock, but instead of running it down, they went right back to work, with Mitchell hitting his second 3-pointer off a Burris assist.
“Just keep shooting,” Mitchell said of his approach. “My teammates trust in me.”
Burke’s putback 57 seconds into the fourth gave the Monarchs their largest advantage, but in a series that’s so tight it typically needs a photo finish, there was no way the Bells were done. No prior Open Division Championship Game had been decided by more than eight points, and though both teams came out of the gate slow on offense, they’d finish strong. Elam, who scored a game-high 15 points, cut the lead to three with 6:45 left on a four-point play, and he’d score again off a Lewis assist to bring the Bells within one. Kiachian would miss the front end of a 1-and-1 with a chance to tie or take the lead with 5:09 left, but after Arrish Bhandal made one of two free throws, Kiachian would sink a pair with 3:50 left to tie the game. Anthony Piro grabbed one of Bellarmine’s eight steals as the Monarchs tried to make their way back up the court, and though he couldn’t finish, Denker was there for the follow to put the Bells in front.
The lead would only last for a few seconds as Ryan hit the go-ahead shot, and with Greene’s huge five points in the final minutes, a couple of well-timed misses from a Bellarmine team that shot just 3-of-19 from beyond the arc and a bit of help with the clock, the Monarchs had done it.
“I’m so proud of the guys with how much composure they had. They lost a couple of these games earlier in the season,” Kennedy said. “Being able to be in those games and then not making those same mistakes tonight was pretty special.”
The strong finish was a stark contrast to Mitty’s incomprehensibly bad start to the game, where a Burris dunk was the only bright spot over the first five minutes as the Bells jumped out to a 9-2 lead, forcing Kennedy to burn two timeouts. Bhandal finally ended the drought with a baseline floater and Browne hit his lone shot of the night, a 3-pointer to answer one from Elam, as Mitty trailed by just five after a quarter.
“During the first quarter, we were kind of rushing shots on offense,” Kennedy explained. “In the second quarter, we were getting the shots that we normally get, just not knocking them down.”
Though the Monarchs certainly didn’t shoot well in the first half, they made the necessary plays to stay close. Mitchell hit an off-balance jumper three minutes into the quarter to cut the lead to 14-11, Bhandal recovered his own miss and scored after a Lewis 3-pointer had put the Bells up eight and Burris scored on a spin move in the final seconds to send Mitty into the half down 21-15. The Bells did have the lead at the break, but they had certainly left their share of points out there as well. When Mitty roared back to start the third, those missed opportunities became more and more glaring.
“I thought we had a chance to have 30 to 35 points in the first half. We missed six shots inside of two feet,” Schneider said. “I understand not shooting great from the 3-point line in a college arena with three different 3-point lines on the floor, but we needed to do a better job finishing around the basket to give us some breathing room.”
Breathing room would be hard to find for Bellarmine, both literally and figuratively. Driving lanes were almost nonexistent as the game continued, with Burke drawing a pair of charges.
“You look at somebody like Aidan Burke who doesn’t pop on a stat sheet, taking charges, winning loose balls,” Kennedy added.
If precedents from the last two years are to be followed, both teams should be headed to the CIF Open Division, with Mitty in line for a home game. However, predicting how the brackets will look when they’re released on Sunday is only slightly easier than predicting the weather 30 years from now, so both teams’ fates will be unknown until then.