Despite a hard-fought effort, the Los Gatos High boys basketball team absorbed a 63-55 loss to Bellarmine in the Central Coast Section Division I playoff championship game Feb. 25 at Santa Clara High.
Their CCS title goal denied, the Wildcats still have a season left as they automatically qualified for the CIF NorCal playoffs by making the section championship game. They got the No. 10 seed in the Division III bracket and play at No. 7 Justin Siena of Napa on Feb. 28 at 7pm.
The Los Gatos girls are also in the CIF tournament by virtue of being one of eight teams that earned a spot in the CCS Open Division playoffs. The Wildcats are the No. 16 seed in Division II and play at top seed Marin Catholic on Feb. 28 at 5pm.
Los Gatos went 0-3 in the Open, suffering losses against Branham, Crystal Springs Uplands of Hillsborough and Mitty. It didn’t have its best player in Nicole Steiner for the Branham and CSU contests, yet still hung with the Bruins until the end.
Against CSU, the Wildcats simply ran out of gas, scoring zero points in the fourth quarter in a 39-25 home loss on Feb. 20. Regardless, they put together another tremendous season under coach Sara Quilici Giles as did the boys team under Nick Ward.
In the CCS title boys game, the No. 2 seed Wildcats (21-6) were down 14 points at halftime before flipping the proverbial switch coming out of the break, fully employing their “all guns blazing” game plan, as sophomore guard Osha Maloney put it, to start the third quarter.
“We went in at halftime knowing that we were still in the game, and had to come out and change how it was going,” sophomore guard Scotty Brennan said. “So we came out, we hit some shots and we cut the lead down and we had a real chance to win it.”
Senior guard Max Houghton, who finished with 11 points, led the charge with consecutive 3-pointers that started to close the 14-point deficit vs. the top seed Bells (13-13). Junior forward Nolan Koch was a force in the paint, picking up five of his 10 points in the third quarter, including a highly contested layup from under the basket.
The Wildcats outscored Bellarmine by three in the third quarter, continuing to surge in the fourth quarter. That’s when Brennan got hot. He knocked down a field goal from the perimeter, another one from inside the paint, and a free throw that would cut Los Gatos’ deficit to 55-50.
“We weren’t getting it done [in the first half] and I needed to help the team,” Brennan said. “I wanted this for the seniors and so I just gave it my all in the second half.”
Senior forward Tommy Ankenbrandt, who had 10 points, also played an integral part in the second-half resurgence with a basket to keep the scoring, and momentum, rolling. Additionally, he would anchor the defense with his 6-foot-6 frame and tenacious man-marking.
In spite of the Wildcat’s efforts—they once again outscored their opponents by three points in the quarter—Bellarmine’s WCAL-honed repertoire would ultimately prevail, granting them its 15th CCS title in school history in front of an electric atmosphere.
“[I am] proud of the guys,” coach Nick Ward said. “[We were] down big at half, and just got all the way to the end and…fought our way back into it. And that’s what we said we had to do to get here.”
On the loss, Brennan said: “It sucks. It’s definitely going to sting for a little while. [I] feel there’s more that I could have done to help out, but at the end, we just couldn’t get it done.”
The primary factor behind the defeat was the Wildcats’ slow start. Whereas Bellarmine came out dialed in, Los Gatos struggled to get going, resulting in the Bells taking a strong 16-9 lead by the end of the first quarter.
“They played well, they hit some shots in transition and that’s what we forced them to do,” Ward said. “[The] second half was more of our style, and that’s how we got back into it. We just didn’t get them moving enough in the first half.”
Bellarmine capitalized, utilizing its larger-framed bodies and trademark rapid-fire playing style to collect rebounds and move up the court with ease throughout the first two quarters. Bells guard Brayden Harris was especially potent, scoring a game-high 24 points, 15 coming in the first half.
“They were making shots [and] getting in the paint, but we just kept fighting,” Maloney said. “We did what we could.”
Junior guard Ronan Chinmulgund would embody this sentiment, not shying away from contact on either side of the ball. The guard induced a charging foul on a Bellarmine fast break in the second quarter. He also connected on two under heavy duress.
Despite the result, the future looks bright for Los Gatos, whose current varsity roster consists of 12 returning players. In addition, the Wildcats junior varsity team thrived this season, going 23-1 overall and claiming an undefeated 12-0 record in league play.
“I think we’ll be right back here [next year],” Brennan said.
Sports editor Emanuel Lee contributed to this report.