No one would’ve thought this before the season started, but Chigozie “Chico” Okeke’s predicament would serve as a harbinger for the Christopher High boys basketball team’s 2021-2022 campaign.
Rough start but closing strong. Sidelined for the first half of the season, the junior guard struggled in his return to the court early in the league season. However, Okeke has turned things on down the stretch, highlighted by his best game yet in the Cougars’ 60-55 win over Palma on Feb. 10.
Christopher went on to win its final regular-season contest against Alisal High on Feb. 15 to clinch a share of the Pacific Coast League Gabilan Division championship, its first A-league title in program history. Depending on their seed, the Cougars (17-6 overall, 11-1 league) will open the Central Coast Section playoffs on Feb. 19 or 22. Okeke will be there, though that was far from a guarantee when he tore a tendon in his knee in October.
Okeke, a valuable player in Christopher’s four-year run of success, would be out indefinitely. Although surgery wasn’t needed, Okeke had to wait a month before he could put any weight on it.
“It’s been a long road back, a long journey,” said Okeke, who scored 11 points in the Palma game. “I love these guys, they’ve taught me a whole lot and I’m just really glad I get to share in this moment with them because Palma has had our number the past two years and it’s finally good to get them back.”
The Chieftains knocked off CHS last year and won the teams’ first league meeting this season, but the rematch would prove different. Tobenna Ezeokeke made sure of that. The senior wing set the tone from the outset, driving to the basket strong and scoring on the team’s first two possessions. Bricen Buciak then hit a floater to make it 6-0, forcing a Palma timeout.
The break in the action didn’t stop the CHS onslaught, as the Cougars romped to a 23-7 lead after one quarter. CHS literally pickpocketed the Palma ball handlers in the first half, forcing 14 Palma turnovers that led to 12 CHS points.
The Cougars’ length and ball anticipation created all sorts of havoc for Palma and propelled them to a commanding 34-19 halftime lead. The Chieftains came back—just like you knew they would—outscoring CHS 37-26 in the second half.
The Cougars, who led by as many as 18 points, saw their once sizable lead shrink to four points, 59-55, with 32.8 seconds remaining. But that’s as close as Palma would get. Ezeokeke hit the front end of a 1-and-1 and Palma misfired on its penultimate possession, sealing the outcome.
“The difference right from the get-go was Tobenna doing what he did,” Okeke said. “He’s our captain, a great leader, and he helped keep our intensity up. We wavered a little bit, but we stuck through it to the end.”
Cougars coach Adam Sax sees his players reacting now instead of thinking on the court, which is why they’re playing their best basketball of the season.
“The last couple of weeks they’re getting to get out of their shell a little bit and starting to be more aggressive on offense,” said Sax, who is in his first season with CHS after strong stints at Palo Alto and Amador Valley. “They’re starting to drive with some tenacity, some aggressiveness, where it seemed like all year they were hesitant. But (two weeks ago), it was like, ‘Let’s go.’ We started to absorb some contact and all that weight lifting seems to be helping them because they’re starting to use it a little more. Instead of settling, now they’re taking the ball to the basket.”
Senior standout Rickey Becker had 11 points for the Cougars, who had eight different players score and everyone who got minutes making contributions. Whether it was reserve post Chris Naulls providing tough interior play or junior forward Christian Kjellesvig providing key baskets, Sax has got a very solid nine-man rotation for the postseason.
Okeke was the first player off the bench against Palma and made an immediate impact with his ability to score and handle the ball.
“It took him (Okeke) a while to get his feet wet, but he’s starting to get some rhythm and we could use his ball handling,” Sax said. “He’s a good shooter and can get to the rim, so he does a little bit of everything. The more he plays, the better he gets.”
Okeke returned to action on Jan. 12 in the league opener against Pacific Grove.
“I didn’t know what to expect and it was rough in the beginning, but I’ve found my groove and from there it’s been better,” he said. “I think this Palma game was my best one so far because I contributed and got a lot of minutes. I’m glad coach trusts me to help the team get the W.”
Sax was pleased with how the team responded when Palma made its late-game surge. E.J. Yufenyuy had a couple of big baskets in the final four minutes to keep the Chieftains at bay. Center Braddock Kjellesvig had his hands full with Palma’s best player, Joseph Finley, a 6-foot-6, 240-pound post.
But Kjellesvig—with the help of his teammates—didn’t allow Finley (14 points) to go off and take over the game.
“The guys persevered at the end,” Sax said. “They kept their composure, handled the traps, handled the pressure and were able to get the win.”
Whatever happens the rest of the way, CHS simply wants to play its best and be at peace knowing it played to its potential. Up until early January, the Cougars were still trying to figure themselves out. It’s a different ball game now.
“Before we were trying to get into rhythm, and there was a lot of thinking,” Sax said. “But now the more reps we get, the better we get.”
Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected]