The shortest player on the Christopher High boys basketball team made the biggest impact in the Cougars’ 43-37 win over Santa Clara on Tuesday in a Central Coast Section Division II playoff quarterfinal. Sophomore Rickey Becker, a 5-foot-8 shooting guard, went off for a career-high 27 points to power the Cougars to a semifinal matchup at Gunn High of Palo Alto on Thursday. Tip-off is 7 p.m.
“It was pretty surreal,” said Becker, who shot 8 of 11 from the floor, 3 of 4 from 3-point range and 8 of 11 from the free throw line. “It felt nice to be a walking bucket again. Lately, I’ve been struggling and not doing too well with field goal percentage and during practice. I haven’t been making shots lately.”
Until Tuesday in one of the biggest games of the season. Talk about coming up clutch. The entire Christopher team used harassing defense to overcome an 11-point halftime deficit and win going away. Suffocating would be another word to describe the Cougars’ defense, which held Santa Clara to a paltry 12 points in the second half. The No. 7 seed Cougars (17-9) played tough on the perimeter and on the few occasions Santa Clara players were able to get to the basket, 6-foot-9 center Ethan Fleener and 6-4 forward Chandler Winding were there to act as erasers.
“Our length really bothered them,” said Cougars coach Tim Von Urff, whose team had to overcome a dreaded three-point, second quarter. “Ethan and Chandler were blocking and stuffing shots inside, and it was our team defense that sure enough put us in position to win the ball game.”
A year after making the CCS quarterfinals—the best showing by a CHS team in program history—the Cougars have taken their game to another level this season, winning a league championship for the first time in school history and now advancing to the CCS semifinal round. All of the players and coaches on this year’s team have left an indelible mark, because they were the first in program history to win a league title by capturing the Pacific Coast League’s Mission Division.
“For us to win the first-ever league title for boys basketball at the school, we were ecstatic and so beyond ourselves we accomplished the goal,” Von Urff said. “It’ll be unreal when we get the banner up there for sure. The great thing is this is a great group of kids, they just care about winning and it shows.”
Said Becker: “Being a part of the team to win the first league title is an extremely special opportunity, and I’m really glad to be a part of it.”
Against No. 2 seed Santa Clara (17-6), the Cougars started slow offensively, highlighted by the three-point, second quarter. However, once Becker got rolling, he couldn’t be stopped. Pulling up for 3-pointers and relentlessly driving to the basket, Becker accounted for a huge chunk of the team’s points. Quick and agile, Becker hit several running floaters in the lane, a testament to his timing, basketball IQ and quick release to be able to get shots off against taller players.
“Throughout the game, I was always thinking to be in attack mode, because if I can’t score, we can’t win,” Becker said. “We hit a couple of rough spots throughout the game, so I thought making buckets was extremely important in a game like this. This was a high stage, and I knew if we did not win, that would be the end of our season. The fear of going home really set in, and I wasn’t going to let that happen.”
Becker, whose previous career high was 24 points in a win over San Benito High on Jan. 30, was so calm and relaxed that late in the game he hit back-to-back treys to turn a three-point deficit into a three-point lead with 2 minutes, 15 seconds remaining. Junior Owen McCarry, the team’s outstanding point guard, was on the free throw line when Becker approached Von Urff.
“Rickey walks over to me and starts smiling, taps me in the chest and then says, ‘Coach, it’s alright. You can relax, I got it,'” Von Urff said. “I turned around and thought, ‘Oh my God, this kid is in a zone.’ I looked over at his dad and was reminded this kid is an absolute gamer. He was playing with a lot of confidence, and his teammates were all looking for him. He came through big time, man, and he’s not afraid of anyone or anything.”
Becker said the players truly play for each other, and they inspire one another to shine in key moments.
“I felt the confidence my teammates had in me, and because of that, I felt the energy to live up to the expectations of what I was supposed to be doing on the court,” he said. “(From how I had been playing), it was a change of events that happened last night. I felt my teammates were ready, and that was important in propelling me to do what I did.”
Even though the Cougars were down by 11 points at halftime, they had faced larger deficits earlier in the season and come back to win.
“We’re all fighters and all dogs as our coach likes to put it, so I never lost confidence throughout the game that we would come back and win,” Becker said.
Neither did Von Urff: “It’s kind of one of those things where we’ve been in that situation so many times before. But our M.O. has been as the game goes on, we get stronger. The boys fight on every single possession, and we were preaching to not focus on the scoreboard, but focus on every single possession. And look at where it got us.”
One of the key junctures of the game came when Tobenna Ezeokeke connected on a 4-point—yes, 4 point—play when he hit a 3-pointer, was fouled and drained the free throw at the buzzer to end the third quarter to make it 28-28 entering the fourth quarter.
“That was a huge turning point,” Von Urff said. “We knew at that point it was anyone’s ball game.”