With its season hanging in the balance, the Christopher High boys basketball team got the shot it wanted. Rickey Becker had curled around a screen to the top of the key, and even though there were two defenders in his vicinity, he had just enough daylight to release his shot.
But the shot was off, as an Eastside College Prep player or two had made contact with Becker, leaving him on the floor. The buzzer sounded, and just like that the host Cougars saw their season end, 51-49, in a thrilling CIF NorCal Regional quarterfinal on Thursday. There is a sports truism that says to not leave the outcome of the game in the hands of the referees. Unfortunately for Christopher, it found out this lesson the hard way.
“Honestly, it is what it is at the end of the day,” said Becker, the sophomore guard who scored a team-high 19 points. “Refs are refs. Yeah, I was hit on the arm and got scratched on the face, but that’s OK. We had our chances to put it away early in the game (and didn’t get it done).”
The No. 4 seed Cougars, who finished the season at 19-11, nearly pulled out another mini-miracle in a season that has been filled by them. They trailed for most of the game, including by 10 points, 46-36, with 4 minutes, 30 seconds left in the contest. They looked all but done, but once again found another gear in the fourth quarter, something that was a hallmark of their season.
Becker started the comeback with a 3-pointer before the teams exchanged points for the next couple of minutes. Owen McCarry came up with a huge play, producing a steal which led to a layup that made it 51-48 with 1:02 left. On the ensuing possession, McCarry got in the passing lane again to deflect the ball and cause an Eastside Prep turnover with 53 seconds to go.
However, Christopher was called for an illegal screen for a turnover. The Cougars got another stop, which led to Duncan Ellis getting fouled on a drive to the basket with 17.9 seconds left. He made one free throw before Christopher fouled on consecutive in-bound plays to put the Panthers in a 1-in-1 situation. They missed the free throw, and moments later a jump ball gave the ball back to Christopher as it had the possession arrow. With 8.7 seconds left, Becker inbounded the ball to a teammate before he worked his way to get free beyond the top of the key, which led to the game-ending play.
Christopher harassed No. 5 seed Eastside College Prep into 27 turnovers, as its half court-pressure defense gave the Panthers all sorts of issues. However, the Cougars didn’t convert those turnovers into enough points, and going forward that will be key should they plan on winning CCS or NorCals next season.
“At the next level, we need to start building more of an offense,” Becker said, “and keeping our defense just as strong, and maybe stronger.”
Indeed, when the Cougars were on their game, they pressured teams into countless mistakes. But they had no answer for Panthers center Raymond Reece, who is a load to handle down low and scored a game-high 23 points, all in the paint. Reece’s supporting cast also hit some big shots down the stretch, as Van White and Jack Morton combined for four 3-pointers in the second half, three of which came directly after a Christopher basket.
“We probably could’ve had this, but tonight we just didn’t execute (enough), and that’s why we lost,” Becker said.
Ellis scored 13 points and was a defensive tour de force, using his length to get in the passing lanes and come up with numerous steals. Becker and McCarry (10 points) also applied defensive pressure on the perimeter, and Ethan Fleener blocked two of Reece’s shot attempts.
Despite the loss, this was a dream season for Christopher, which established program records by winning a league championship, advancing to a CCS playoff final and winning a CIF NorCal game. After the initial frustration of not having a chance to tie or win the game had a foul been called on Becker’s shot, the players gathered in the locker room and had a chance to reflect on all they had accomplished.
“The emotions at the beginning is we were all (pretty mad),” Becker said. “(It was) pretty silent, and some of our bench players come in and they were trying to get us up because we were all pretty sad about what happened and pretty mad about it, too. Our team is pretty close, and we’re basically brothers and that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day. By the end, we were all laughing and having a good time remembering what we did this season. We have a really tight group, and it makes you feel happier I guess even after a loss like this.”
The camaraderie and cohesiveness of the team was one of the main factors that led to its success. Even though the games were exhilarating, Becker said it’s what happened apart from the games that he will remember most.
“I’ll remember the people I played with,” he said. “I know we’re losing three seniors this year: Paul (Mann), Ethan (Fleener) and Donte (Sokol). So I’m going to miss them at practice. All the practices and activities we’ve done as a team is really going to stick with me.”
Teams have to deal with graduation losses every year; however, when a team like Christopher will be returning four starters the following season, it doesn’t get much better than that.
“We have a good young core moving next year, and we’re looking to dominate,” Becker said. “So I’m really excited and looking forward to next year. … We’re going to use this (loss) as fuel to be better next season.”