PALO ALTO, Calif. — It started with a murmur, and it quickly turned into a roar.
Looking down the barrel of a loaded gun, facing an 11-point deficit to Sequoia just two minutes into the second quarter, the Palo Alto Vikings slowly but surely made their way back into Saturday night’s CCS Division I Championship Game, then exploded on a 21-0 run that paved the path for a 47-36 victory, the program’s third section title in four years.
Trailing 18-7 with 5:56 left in the second quarter after Kiahn Nice-Whiteside hit his third 3-pointer of the first half, the Vikings started chipping away. It started innocently enough, with Jamir Shepard scoring on a layup with contact from two defenders, and after neither team scored for nearly three minutes, he’d hit one of two free throws. On a night where both teams struggled at the line, the one reliable shooter from the stripe, Matt Marzano, hit two with 2:28 left in the half, and Ryan Purpur scored on a second chance on the next possession, at least ensuring that Palo Alto (23-4) would go into the break within striking distance.
“I just kept going at ‘em,” Shepard said.
Shepard’s play helped the top-seeded Vikings go from just chipping away to completely opening the floodgates. The Fresno State football commit knocked down a 3-pointer, one of just four the hosts would hit on the night, then grabbed a steal and spun his way to the basket for a go-ahead layup to take the lead into halftime. Suddenly, a Palo Alto team that couldn’t buy a basket for much of the first half was knocking down near-impossible shots, with Aidan Rausch hitting a turnaround shot from the elbow, then grabbing an offensive rebound and sending it out to Marzano for a three from near NBA range. Rausch then knocked down one of his own, banking it in for a 28-18 advantage.
Sequoia (17-11) ensured that the first section championship appearance in program history wouldn’t be a total farce, recovering from the gut punch with a Daniel Duran free throw to end the scoring drought at nine minutes and eight seconds. The sixth-seeded Ravens would nearly make it 10 minutes without a field goal, finally snapping that skid with a Duran bucket in the paint after Nice-Whiteside nearly knocked down two more threes, both of which rimmed out after going halfway down. Even with the 6-foot-6 junior’s luck turning and Rausch banking in another three for a 33-23 advantage, Gabe Munguia would knock down his lone 3-pointer of the night to send the visitors into the fourth down just seven.
Sam Schult, held down for most of the night after the Vikings switched to a 2-3 zone to prevent drive-and-kick action, hit a three to open the fourth and even had a chance to cut the deficit to a single point when he was fouled attempting another 3-pointer with 5:50 left, but he couldn’t connect on any of the ensuing free throws. Palo Alto made Schult and the Ravens pay right away, with a Shepard basket and Purpur putback. After a Sequoia timeout, it was time for Andrew Li to make his nightly hustle play, which he did with a steal and spin move to avoid a defender.
“He’s a sparkplug and he plays so hard,” head coach Jeff LaMere said.
Neither team would score over the next two-plus minutes as Sequoia missed two more free throws, but Will DeAndre hit a pair from the line with 2:37 left after taking a nasty shot to the face and Marzano would make all four of his attempts in the closing minutes to ice the game. It all culminated in the Palo Alto student section rushing the court to celebrate the program’s third section title in four years, all won under different head coaches.
The prior two men to have led the program, Peter Diepenbrock and Rodney Tention, were both in attendance on Saturday night, with Tention flying up from San Luis Obispo to attend the game.
“The Palo Alto basketball community is a family,” said Marzano, who finished the night with nine points and nine rebounds.
Shepard’s 13 points and 10 boards led the way on a night where neither team lit up the stat sheet offensively, but the Vikings hardly needed to with the defense they played after falling behind by double-digits. After Nice-Whiteside’s third 3-pointer, Sequoia was held to just 5-for-21 shooting.
“Rodney always talked about defense with these guys, and I wanted to continue that tradition,” LaMere said. “The guys have completely bought in, and they work really hard, and that’s a testament to them because it’s not easy to play possession-by-possession basketball.”
That defensive intensity allowed Palo Alto to recover from an early gut punch as Nice-Whiteside scored 13 of his 15 in the first half. What once looked like a night where the Ravens had a chance to make program history turned into yet another title for the Vikings, one that finished on a special note as Conner Lusk, who fractured his elbow six weeks ago, came in to play the final 34.8 seconds and even dished out an assist to Purpur for the last of his 11 points.
“I didn’t think there was gonna be an opportunity, but Coach said if there was a shot, he’d put me in,” Lusk said.
A two-year starter, Lusk was just the latest player to be derailed by injuries in a program that’s had to deal with quite the laundry list of ailments, powering through all of them to continue a tradition of success. Rausch, who scored all eight of his points in the third quarter, hardly played as a freshman or sophomore because of various injuries.
“I’m just glad I can play,” the junior forward said.
The most prominent junior on a senior-laden team, there’s a good chance it won’t be the last Sequoia has seen of Rausch, and it won’t be the last Palo Alto has seen of Nice-Whiteside. Separated by barely seven miles, the two schools had played a nonleague contest in December as well. Daniel Duran, a senior, was the Ravens’ only other significant scorer, finishing with nine points and eight rebounds.
“We couldn’t put the ball in the hoop when they switched into that little 2-3 zone,” head coach Fine Lauese said of his team’s offensive struggles.
Even with the disappointment of falling short in their first ever CCS championship appearance, the Ravens will be making their third trip to the CIF State Tournament, having also reached the stage in 2017 and 2018 after playing in the CCS Open Division.
“Every season we’re in the playoffs, we’re playing hard and we’ve just got to make sure we get over the hump,” Lauese said. “Today, we didn’t get over that.”
One of the humps that Sequoia could clear would come in the form of winning a state tournament game. In 2017 and 2018, the then-Cherokees drew prestigious opponents in the first round, bowing out at home against Folsom and Moreau Catholic.
Conversely, the Vikings have had success in the state tournament, reaching NorCal championship games in both 2017 and 2018 and falling on a last-second shot in a regional semifinal last year. They’ll be back in the field for a fourth straight year, doing so with yet another different face behind the bench.
“It’s just a tale of Palo Alto basketball and the program we’ve built,” Lusk said. “We’ve been able to continue to strive even though we’ve had three coaches in three years.”
After having so many voices in their ears, the players haven’t tuned any of their coaches out, and the results have shown with LaMere’s steady hand guiding the way to 16 consecutive wins.
“He keeps his cool out on the court,” said Marzano, a three-year varsity player and two-year starter. “He keeps his composure, and that’s why we win games.”
That composure was apparent after the Vikings trailed 11-5 through a quarter and 18-7 early in the second, keeping a steady ship afloat in choppy waters before reaching the promised land.