Duncan Ellis lay in his bed, reliving the indelible moments of Christopher’s 52-45 win over host Gunn-Palo Alto in a Central Coast Section Division II playoff semifinal. Thursday night had bled into Friday morning, and Ellis couldn’t fall asleep, too excited and pumped after the Cougars added another incredible chapter to what has been a storybook season. The No. 7 seed Cougars (18-9) play top-seed Hillsdale-San Mateo (19-7) at 4 p.m. Saturday at Sequoia High in Redwood City for the title.
“It’s kind of a dream come true because we worked for this goal for so long,” said Ellis, who had a team-high 12 points.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Cougars coach Tim Von Urff said. “Not only do we get the opportunity to play in a CCS championship game, but we’re guaranteed a spot in the state playoffs, which is pretty damn cool. We’re really juiced. At the beginning of the year, we sat down and talked about our goals, and sure enough one is checked off with a league title. Now we have a chance to check off the second one.”
Which would be winning the first CCS title in program history. This year’s Christopher squad has already established some key milestones, winning the first league title in program history and advancing to a section final. Last year’s team advanced to the quarterfinal round, which was the previous best finish by a Christopher boys basketball team in the postseason. This year’s team has set the standard by which all other Cougar squads will be judged going forward.
“The boys have had a hell of a season,” Von Urff said. “It’s obviously fantastic we’ve gotten this far, but these boys don’t give up and they’re looking to do more. We just keep fighting, and that’s what I respect most out of this group, is their willingness to fight and never give up.”
As has been its pattern, Christopher fell behind early and trailed Gunn 17-11 after the first quarter. However, the Cougars outscored the Titans 14-6 in the second before unleashing a 15-9 third-quarter run that essentially put the game away. Tobenna Ezeokeke (11 points) and Rickey Becker (10 points) joined Ellis in double-figure scoring, but the Cougars also received eight points from Owen McCarry, six from Ethan Fleener and five from Alfonso Gamboa.
If the team can produce another balanced scoring effort on Saturday, it could be hoisting up the CCS trophy. The title game is a classic matchup, with Christopher’s rock-solid defense being pitted against Hillsdale’s potent scoring attack. Hillsdale went off for 77 points in its semifinal win over Willow Glen, and the Christopher team took notice.
“They put up 70 points in most of their games, and I heard a lot of people saying that we won’t be able to keep up with them scoring-wise,” Ellis said. “But they haven’t seen us play defense the way we’re capable of playing defense, so it’s going to be exciting to see their offense against our defense.”
Von Urff praised Ellis for displaying tremendous leadership qualities against Gunn, something Ellis has been doing all season. The team needed some stability after falling behind by six points after the first quarter, and Ellis proved to be a calming influence.
“Duncan would do something to settle our team and break that chatter coming from the Gunn fans,” Von Urff said. “Whether it was a 3-pointer or a baseline drive, he made play after play and never let the fans get going too much. That showed Duncan’s leadership and experience.”
The Cougars went from a man-to-man defense to a 1-2-2 zone, stifling Gunn in the process. They’ll have to mix things up against Hillsdale, which similar to Christopher has looked strong in the postseason.
“Hillsdale has two kids who can go,” Von Urff said. “They’re lights out. The point guard puts up 25-plus (points) a game, and they’ve got another kid probably 6-3, 6-4 who can drive and shoot. But we’re more focused on controlling what we want to do.”
Said Ellis: “You can’t hold great players like that to not scoring at all, but the goal is slowing them down and making them take tougher shots so it wears them down, gets them tired and maybe gets them in foul trouble. It’s about bending but not breaking.”
And that’s exactly what the Cougars have done all season.