By Mike Bebernes
It’s not often that the biggest man in the building takes a charge from the smallest man on the court.
It was just such unlikely play that helped decide the CIF Division III State Championship Tournament first-round matchup between Sacred Heart Cathedral and El Cerrito High School, when 5-foot-8-inch Irish guard Zachary Tapel collided with 6-foot-7-inch Gaucho center Eric Nelson with 10 seconds remaining.
The charge call gave the Gauchos possession of the ball with a 51-50 lead and prevented the Irish from taking two potential lead-taking free throws.
“The charge was huge, just huge,” said El Cerrito Head Coach Michael Booker. “[The call] could have easily gone another way, but [Nelson] did a great job and held his ground.”
En route to a 52-50 victory, El Cerrito (26-4) made crucial plays in crunch time and forced Sacred Heart (14-15) into costly late turnovers in a game that was contested until the final seconds.
The Irish played with fervent energy, but were unable to bring a focus to match their level of effort. Sacred Heart turned the ball over on its first six possessions of opening quarter and had 27 total turnovers in the game.
“We did some things that are out of character tonight,” said Sacred Heart Head Coach Darrell Barbour. “I just didn’t see that focus, because when you focus you do the little things. We did a lot of little things wrong tonight.”
The Irish also struggled from the field, shooting just 1-of-8 from three-point range.
“The shots, I don’t know. We were just not hitting,” Tapel said.
The Irish were led by Jamal Ford who had a team-high 14 points. Taylor Johns scored 11 and Joshua Fox chipped in 10.
Due to the poor shooting, things became very physical in the paint and the teams combined to shoot 42 total free throws.
El Cerrito missed six fourth-quarter free throws that helped Sacred Heart get within reach late in the game, but Ford’s desperation heave as time expired went wide right.
Jabri Jenkins scored a game-high 15 points to lead the Gauchos, while Nelson and Daniel Rice each had eight points. El Cerrito used its interior height advantage to collect 16 offensive rebounds.
“We’re a team that creates havoc on the court,” said Nelson.
The loss ends an up-and-down season for the Irish after winning the state title last year.
The team was riding a three-game win streak that took them to a CCS title.
“[The season] was a roller coaster of competing and not competing,” said Barbour. “It’s a credit to them. It’s rewarding what those kids did at the end of the year because no one can take away the CCS championship from those guys.”