SALINAS, Calif. — In what’s largely been an underwhelming season by the program’s high standards, it looked like the Santa Cruz Cardinals would never earn a chance to avenge consecutive CCS championship game losses.
That is, until they played some of the best defense of their lives on Thursday, knocking off top-seeded Palma 45-38 in a CCS Division IV Semifinal played at Hartnell College.
“Defensively, this is probably our best effort all season long,” head coach Lawan Milhouse said. “It’s on the kids. They compete in everything they go through all season long, this is what they want and they compete.”
Fourth-seeded Santa Cruz (17-12) held Palma to 26.3% shooting and led throughout the second half, fighting off a late charge as the Chieftains finally locked in and adjusted to the low-scoring nature of the game.
The Cardinals didn’t score from the field after Dillon Danner scored back-to-back layups for a 41-28 lead with 6:06 left but didn’t wither against the pressure as Palma (21-5) attacked the boards tirelessly in the final minutes. Aaron Garibay hit a deep 3-pointer, just his team’s second of the game, out of a timeout, and after the score stayed put for the next two minutes, sophomore Nate Jean-Pierre grabbed a loose ball and scored to cut the lead to eight. Tyler Whitehead came up with a steal after pressing on the ensuing inbound and drew a foul. He made the first free throw and missed the second, but Feras Masarweh grabbed the rebound and scored to get Palma within five.
Just when it looked like the Chieftains had all the momentum and energy on their side, Santa Cruz locked back in, benefitting from a miss on a point-blank layup and then contesting the next five Palma shots, all misses. Riley Vanwickle missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 38.5 left but got another chance after a missed three and sank both with 21.9 left to put the game away. Danner made two more with 13.9 left before, in a cruel twist of fate, the Chieftains hit their toughest shot of the night, an 18-foot A.J. Suniga runner in the final seconds.
“That was our best defensive game all year,” Danner confirmed after scoring a game-high 15 points. “They’re a very fast team, but we were able to keep up with them and stay in front.”
It certainly wasn’t an offensive masterpiece for the Cardinals, who went just 14-of-45 from the floor, but they made big offensive plays when they needed to, with reserves scoring critical baskets at the end of both the second and third quarters. They took the lead into the break after freshman Aden Curry grabbed an offensive rebound to set up a Jack Busenhart jumper and closed the third up 37-28 after a mad dash up the floor. After two missed Joey Finley free throws with 5.5 left in the quarter, backup point guard Andrew Whitmeyer grabbed the rebound and fired a stretch pass to fellow sophomore Matt Burns, who played less than a minute but made his time count, finishing the layup just before the quarter ended.
Those missed free throws weren’t the only ones to hurt the Chieftains, who shot a paltry 6-of-16 at the line. Their season will likely continue on Sunday as they’re expected to receive an at-large bid to the CIF State Tournament, but with the tourney’s unpredictable nature, it’s something head coach Kelley Lopez isn’t counting on.
“If our name is called Sunday, great. If not, it wasn’t meant to be,” he said. ““We’re disappointed that we lost, but through the pain and disappointment, we’re reliving and enjoying the great moments we did have this year.”
The loss means the Chieftains will fall short of winning their first CCS title since 2007, but with Garibay, a junior, scoring 11 points off the bench and Jean-Pierre scoring nine, there will be plenty of chances for the young core to make up for the loss. Still, Lopez’s attention is largely on his seniors.
“Our underclassmen were the focus of our opponents, but without the maturity, work ethic, leadership and accountability of the seven seniors, we don’t have the year we did,” he said. “They never complained, never wanted the spotlight or attention. All they wanted was to have success.”
For the Santa Cruz seniors, including Danner and Makai Norman, who scored 14, there’ll be one more chance to avenge consecutive title game losses.
“We expect to win it this time,” said Danner, who already won a section championship in the fall as the quarterback of Santa Cruz’s football team.