CONCORD – As the final buzzer sounded on De La Salle’s 55-49 win over Salesian on Wednesday night, the Spartan players seemed more relieved than overjoyed after victory in the North Coast Section Open Division semi-finals became official.
Second-seeded De La Salle nearly lost a double-digit lead with a minute left to play, but made some late baskets to sideline a ruthless Salesian team.
“It was a little nerve wracking,” De La Salle guard Leo Ricketts said.
De La Salle is now on his way to a second consecutive Open final to be played at St. Mary’s College, this time against an East Bay Athletic League rival in top-seeded Dougherty Valley.
A Campolindo team led by Aidan Mahaney got past the Spartans 51-50 in last season’s final, and De La Salle is eager to get a second chance at a section title.
“I’m proud of our program to be back in this game,” De La Salle coach Marcus Schroeder said via text message. “(It’s a) testament to our players and how hard they’ve worked.”
De La Salle led 49–37 with 47 seconds remaining, after smothering Salesian’s attack for nearly the entire game. But as the temperature outside the gym turned frigid, the Salesian shooters began to warm up.
Alvin Loving made a three-pointer, and after De La Salle’s Billy Haggerty nailed two free throws, Loving raced down and hit his second three in the space of 10 seconds to cut the lead to 51–43.
A Salesian defender then stole the inbound pass at halfcourt. Amani Johnson capitalized on the turnover and made a three-pointer with 26 seconds left to cut the lead to five points.
After De La Salle missed the front of a one-on-one, Johnson sputtered Salesian’s fourth three-pointer in 30 seconds to cut the lead to 51-49. Salesian was almost all the way back.
“We never seem to make it easy, for whatever reason,” Schroeder said, shaking his head.
But with 10 seconds left, Evan Wells broke free for a De La Salle layup, and then the Spartans stole the inbound pass. Arshawn Salkhi finished the game with another basket just before time ran out.
De La Salle (21-7) had survived another tight and low-scoring duel between the traditional powers. In the previous four games, neither team had won by more than seven points and no school has crossed the 60-point mark in any of those confrontations.
Even though Salesian (22-8) is out of the section’s open playoff, the season is far from over. Salesian is assured of a spot in NorCal’s playoffs, and Saturday’s consolation game against Granada could determine which category the team is placed in.
“It goes on your schedule and it goes on your record, so it can help or hurt the seeding,” Salesian coach Bill Mellis said of the upcoming game. “We have to take it seriously.”
De La Salle’s Ricketts was the spark that turned a Spartan four-point lead in the third quarter into a 17-point lead midway through the fourth.
The energetic point guard with a knack for knocking down shots scored all of his seven points in the span of four minutes between the third and fourth quarters, which had been a stagnant offense with his game.
“He’s a really nice player, man,” Schroeder said of Ricketts. “He’s been a spark plug for us all year from the bench.”
The junior will now be asked to help defend Dougherty Valley’s prolific waiting tandem of Ryan Beasley and Connor Sevilla, who edged past Granada in the semis. Dougherty Valley defeated De La Salle 69-55 in the regular season.
“They’re both really fast and really good at getting difficult shots,” said Ricketts. “I’m up for the challenge.”
De La Salle, who had 13 days off, and Salesian, who had enjoyed six days off, showed no signs of rusting in the first quarter. Salesian led 14-13 in a back and forth eight minute opening.
By comparison, the second quarter was a slog. La Salle sophomore Alec Blair scored all six of his team’s points, while the Richmond school was only able to collect three.
De La Salle, with timely baskets from Ricketts, Haggerty and others, finished the third quarter with a 36–26 lead. Midway through the fourth quarter, the Spartans led 46-29, but an 8-0 Salesian run cut the lead to 46-37.
After Salkhi made a layup and another teammate made a free throw, to go up 49-37, Salesian continued his rally.
Blair finished with a team-high 14 points, Haggerty and Salkhi had 12 each, and Haggerty scored 10. Salesian’s Loving scored a game-high 18, but no other teammates scored more than six points.
“We ran out of time and we ran out of timeouts, but we fought to the end,” said Mellis.