VALLEJO, Calif. — Frustrated with his team’s performance, St. Patrick-St. Vincent head coach Derek Walker’s message to his team during a timeout with 2:58 left in the third quarter was simple.
“Just don’t settle.”
The Bruins took that to heart, attacking the St. Joseph Notre Dame zone to close the third quarter on a 9-0 run to get within two and then playing a strong fourth quarter to save their season, defeating the Pilots 53-47 to both advance to the NCS Division 3 Championship and qualify for the CIF State Tournament.
“The easiest shot is to just chuck up a 25-footer, so you’ve got to have a little toughness to get the ball inside,” Walker said. “I think we got that done late in the game.”
On a night where the Bruins hit just one 3-pointer, they had to attack the inside with reckless abandon, and for the final 11 minutes, they did just that. Jaden Alexander’s and-1, in which he slashed through a double-team to score with 0.2 seconds left in the third, cut the lead to 38-36, and he’d score off a Noah Franklin assist just over two minutes into the fourth to put St. Patrick-St. Vincent (21-10) up 40-39, the first lead for the second-seeded Bruins since the first quarter.
“We weren’t strong with the ball and they were playing way harder than us,” said Alexander, who led all players with 25 points and 10 rebounds. “When we got our focus back, we started coming together as a team.”
After the Pilots finally snapped out of their scoring drought on a pull-up from freshman Ahmaree McCullough, who may lack in size but has no shortage of heart, Esai Contreras hit an elbow floater and answered two Jaylen Thompson free throws by finding Dishon Jackson open underneath. Jayelen Jones, who scored 17 to lead St. Joseph Notre Dame (23-8), followed with a pull-up to make it 47-45, but Alexander got his final basket of the night off another Franklin assist before giving way to the 6-foot-10 Jackson, who prolonged his career by closing the game out.
After a Chiekh Gueye putback got the third-seeded Pilots back within two, Jackson couldn’t finish off an inbound pass but drew Gueye’s fifth foul, making one of two free throws with 1:13 left. SJND would come up empty on the following possession, and after the Bruins ran down the clock, Contreras missed a short jumper but Jackson delivered the dagger, an and-1 on a putback to open up a six-point lead before an offensive foul at the other end sealed the win.
“Coach tells us I need to stand in the middle of the zone with the two guards on top and just put a hand up,” Jackson said after closing the game out.
He had just two points and two rebounds in the first half, which he spent much of on the bench after picking up his second foul 24 seconds into the second quarter, but he still managed to finish with 13 and eight, with a pair of and-1s on putbacks in the second half. The first came after Elijah Palmer had buried one of his three 3-pointers to put SJND up 32-22.
Up until the Bruins turned things around late in the third, it was the Jones and Palmer show, with the two nearly willing the Pilots to a 12th straight state tournament appearance. Palmer scored 15, following up a Jones 3-pointer with his third connection from downtown to open up a 38-27 lead before Walker called the pivotal timeout. Having graduated seven vocal seniors a year ago, Palmer stepped up as a leader as a junior, something he credited to the teammates who had come before him.
“Last year, Julian Vaughns and Eric Greer showed me what to do and showed me the ropes,” he said.
Another member of that 2019 class, Adam Campos, was in attendance to support the Pilots on Tuesday night. Replacing his ability in the post was one of head coach Don Lippi’s biggest obstacles, and while the 6-7 Gueye didn’t do much on the offensive end, with just the one putback, he pulled down seven rebounds and successfully slowed Jackson throughout his time on the court. Gueye’s performance was representative of a senior class that may not have had tons of talent but showed stellar character throughout the year.
“They’re beautiful people,” Lippi said. “I’d like them to be a little more feisty, but they’re beautiful people, and that’s gonna take them a lot longer.”
With top-seeded San Ramon Valley losing in Division 2 and likely taking the section’s lone at-large bid, the season is likely over for the Pilots, meaning Tuesday was the final time Gueye, Jones and three other seniors suited up in the blue and orange. Still, there’ll be no shortage of returning talent next year. Palmer, who scored 15, was the team’s top junior and sophomore Jaylen Thompson, who already holds offers from Stanford and USC, scored eight.
Thompson and Jackson were the two main attractions that drew the Washington State head coach to Vallejo for the game, and it was Jackson who made the final plays to ensure his team would be playing for a shot to win its second section title in three years. The date and time of that game won’t be announced until the conclusion of Wednesday’s games, but the Bruins know they’ll be facing top-seeded Branson, 43-37 winners over Miramonte.