SACRAMENTO — After the first quarter of play Friday at Golden 1 Center, Central Catholic head coach Mike Wilson pleaded with his team to avoid turnovers.
But it was not so much poor ball-handling by the Raiders as it was aggressive defense and very quick hands by Vanden High. The Vikings kept up that pressure all game and turned it into a 57-41 victory in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship. It was Vanden’s first section crown since 1996.
The top-seeded Vikings (26-6) did not have an easy road in the postseason. Vanden had to win its first three games on the road because of sanctions handed down by the section due to an incident with an official after a December tournament game against Gregori in Modesto.
The No. 2-seeded Raiders from Modesto all wear “WE” on the back of their jerseys. But it was the Vikings who looked more cohesive, constantly disrupting Central Catholic’s (24-8) halfcourt offense, then unselfishly finding the open man and best shot on offense.
Even when the Raiders got the ball to their big men underneath, the Vikings’ Takai Emerson-Hardy and Teaino Hardee were there to either block the shot or make it untenable.
The Viking defense was so tenacious that it held the Raiders to 3-for-28 shooting from the field in the first half as Vanden took a 29-12 lead at the intermission.
“Sometimes we start off really slow,” said Vanden head coach Micheal Holloway. “I was surprised today. We started off really quick.”
Agjanti Miller tried to get the Vikings going with a bang, missing on a dunk. But 6-foot-6 Takai Emerson-Hardy followed it up for the opening bucket.
But it was the Vikings’ quick hands leading to steals leading to fastbreaks which marked the first quarter. Point guard Jacques Jones went coast-to-coast for a layup to make it 8-5 Vanden and the Vikings never looked back.
Vanden somehow turned up the defensive heat even higher in the second quarter, limiting Central Catholic to just five points. The offense was also firing on all cylinders. Once when Teiano Hardee missed a shot, Emerson-Hardee was right there for the follow-up dunk. Vanden got the ball back and Omari Davis hit a 3-pointer to put the Vikes up 20-7 with 6:34 left in the half.
Central Catholic did not score its first point in the second period until a free throw by Dayton Magana with 4:31 to play.
Even when the Vikings got stopped, they retaliated immediately. When the Raiders’ 6-6 center Nic Sani blocked a Hardee shot, Emerson-Hardy ran back in time to block a Sani shot. Sani got his own rebound and tried again, but this time Hardee blocked it.
Emerson-Hardy and Hardee went toe-to-toe with Sani and power forward Dalton Durossette all night and more than held their own down low.
Hardee sandwiched two layups around two Emerson-Hardy free throws to close out the half, the last on a nice fastbreak feed from Miller for a three-point play.
The Raiders made a third-quarter run, fueled by their switch from man-to-man defense to a 2-1-2 zone which stifled the Vikings. Central Catholic won the quarter 14-4 and cut the Vanden lead to 33-26.
“We hit a little funk in the third quarter,” Holloway said. “It was tough to score because they switched to a zone. But in the fourth quarter, we got back to what we do and what we do well, which is run.”
Vanden responded immediately at the beginning of the final stanza. I’saac Montgomery hit a layup just 19 seconds into the period, and 16 seconds later Miller scored on a fastbreak layup to increase the advantage to 37-26 and force a Raider timeout.
Montgomery and Miller dominated the fourth quarter, scoring eight points apiece, with several buckets on soaring moves to the hoop. Both players said after the game they could smell the championship and turned it up a notch. As Montgomery shouted in the post-game press conference, “We wanted to win this thing!”
The whole team must have smelled it because the Vikings scored 24 points in the last quarter as opposed to 15 by Central Catholic.
Hardee has not been waiting for a section title since 1996, but the 6-5 senior has been wanting this since his freshman year. He credited the championship run to amazing team chemistry.
Holloway was especially pleased for Hardee.
“He’s been playing for this all four years,” said the coach. “We knew what it took to get back. These kids answered the bell every time.”
Holloway also knew what it took to beat the Raiders, who convincingly downed the Vikings 83-67 at Central Catholic’s Mark Gallo Invitational on Dec. 12.
“It’s always tough when you play an opponent for the second time,” he said. “So we wanted to make sure we went over every inch of what they do and what we did not do the first time. These kids came out, executed the game plan, played really hard, especially in the first half.”
Holloway also knew that not many 3-pointers would fall at Golden 1, a combination of the depth perception being different than in a high school gym because of the huge size of the arena, the two 3-point lines (pro and high school) and the awe factor of playing here. So the Vikings concentrated on tough defense and getting close to the hoop.
“I wanted to make sure they stayed in the moment and just got after it,” he said. “Defense. Most people don’t shoot the ball well here.”
Regarding having to play on the road in the playoffs, Holloway said. “They took it on as a challenge. After the first game (first road playoff victory), they were like, ‘We did it. Let’s just do it.'”
He felt that the players’ hard work all season culminated in their best game Friday afternoon.
“The defensive effort was incredible,” Holloway said. “Those kids did a really good job defending the ball and also rebounding. They shared the ball, got spots, finished around the rim.”
Sharing the ball led to a balanced attack. Montgomery and Emerson-Hardy scored 14 points apiece and Miller had 13.