CONCORD, Calif. — They may not have taken a conventional path to get there, but the Campolindo Cougars will be playing for a state championship for a second year in a row.
Facing a De La Salle team that advanced into the Northern California Championship after Riordan was forced to withdraw due to health concerns, the seventh-seeded Cougars won their third straight game on the road on Tuesday night, going up by 18 points in the third and then holding on at the end for a 54-49 victory.
“We felt totally disrespected that they got seeded ahead of us. We won a game in the NCS Open Division, and we really thought this game should have been on our home court,” head coach Steven Dyer said. “I think we proved to all the seeding people in Division I that their seedings were pretty far off. We’ve beaten the 2 seed, 3 seed and 4 seed on the road.”
Not only did Campolindo (26-6) beat the fourth-seeded Spartans in their own building, they led 34-21 at half and took their largest lead at 41-23 with 4:29 left in the third on a Carter Mahaney free throw before the hosts made their charge.
“I thought we did a really good job attacking the rim. We tried to put them in some pick-and-roll stuff, which I think worked early,” Dyer said. “Carter had the hot hand, they were switching ball screens on him and we were able to exploit that a little bit.”
Leading by double-digits behind not only Mahaney’s strong play, but also a pair of threes by Emmanuel Callas to open the second half and suffocating defense, the Cougars suddenly found themselves needing to hit free throws in the final minute after an inspired comeback effort from De La Salle (24-8). Jeremiah Dargan’s dunk off a Noah Clifford stretch pass just before the buzzer sounded to end the third quarter punctuated an 11-4 run, and with a Jack Byers 3-pointer and pair of Miles Daniels free throws, the lead was down to 45-39 with just 4:47 remaining.
The visitors did get the next three points on a Mahaney mid-range jumper and Callas free throw, but Daniels, who scored all 10 of his points in the fourth, made a pair from the line with 1:37 left after drawing Campo center Matt Radell’s fifth foul and went coast-to-coast to make it a five-point game with 55.3 on the clock. Following a timeout from each team, the Cougars threw a stretch pass to Callas, who nearly lost his dribble, recovered it and scored over Clifford on what would have been the dunk of the year had he grabbed the rim.
Though Callas didn’t grab the rim, he did manage to receive one of the most baffling technical fouls in basketball history as he returned back down the court for what the officials called “unsportsmanlike conduct,” presumably for looking at Clifford, though he didn’t pause to stand over the sophomore for even a moment. Through all the chaos, Daniels made both of the free throws and Clifford scored on a drive off the glass as the Spartans continued to make their push, making just about every play they needed to in order to come back. They proceeded to give three fouls to send the Cougars to the line, and when Maxwell Weaver, who had scored four in the second quarter as his team had raced to a double-digit lead, missed the front end of a 1-and-1, the hosts had a chance to tie but ultimately missed. The younger Mahaney, who had scored just five points in the first 31 minutes, did then finally get his chance at the line, and he iced the game by making two free throws with 11.9 left and two more with 6.6 to go after a Daniels layup.
Though the tight finish and ensuing celebrations from the visiting fans, it was clear that just nine miles from their home floor, Campolindo, now set to play in a state championship game for a second straight year, had tons of support.
“(Our fans) were here an hour before the game started, 20 minutes before we got here,” said Carter, who scored 15 on the night. “They brought the energy and we really felt the energy.”
Conversely, the De La Salle student section was only half-full at tip-off, and though the home crowd did grow throughout the night, it was largely a quiet gathering until Dargan’s dunk. Much of that silence was caused by the Cougar defense, which managed to go the entirety of the first half without committing a single foul. The lead changed hands eight times in the first quarter before Callas, who scored a game-high 18, powered through a defender and scored off the glass for a 14-13 lead, and the two Mahaney brothers would help finish the first on a 6-0 run, with Carter, the smallest man on the court for much of the night, pulling up over defenders with ease.
“I like the challenge of playing against long, athletic defenders like they had tonight,” the Northern Arizona commit said.
He also got the first bucket of the second quarter, and after Weaver scored his four, the Cougars finished the half on a 10-2 run, getting Radell’s lone basket of the night, another Mahaney pull-up and threes by both Callas and freshman Logan Robeson.
The combined offensive effort the visitors showed in the first half was enough to fight the Spartans off down the stretch despite 11 points from Byers and a strong all-around game from Clifford, who finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. While Clifford, Dargan and Chris Bunch are just sophomores and Daniels is only a junior, the Spartans will be graduating four influential seniors, including Byers and backup point guard Jacob Corpus.
“We had a lot of adversity in the beginning of the year,” Clifford said. “(The seniors) got us back on our feet. Without them, we would not have had this game tonight.”
Though the De La Salle seniors saw their careers end on Tuesday, the older of the Mahaney brothers will have one last game, assuming events continue as planned. The Cougars are set to face Ribet Academy on Friday night at 8 p.m. in a battle of defending state champions.
“The goal is to represent all of Lamorinda and all of Northern California,” he said. “We’ve done it before and we want to do it again.”