By Jeremy Balan
DALY CITY — As bad as Lowell High School’s boys basketball team shot the ball in the first three quarters on Thursday, the Cardinals hit the key shots down the stretch to hold off defending Academic Athletic Association champion Washington 32-29 in the Blue and Gold Tournament semifinals at Jefferson High School.
Lowell will take on another AAA rival in the championship game on Friday night, as Galileo took down host Jefferson 53-22 in the other semifinal matchup.
Washington (2-2) took its first lead of the game with just over five minutes remaining on a 3-pointer from senior guard Nick Lam, but the Cardinals (2-1) responded with two 3-pointers from junior guard Jonathon Li to pull ahead.
The second strike from Li gave Lowell a 31-29 lead with 55 seconds remaining, but the Cardinals shot just over 27 percent from the floor and didn’t have a player score in double figures. Li led the Cardinals with a team-high eight points.
“We expect [the shots] to fall, so when they finally do fall, it’s a relief,” said Lowell head coach Rob Ray. “It’s nice to hit shots that matter, and down the stretch, it’s nice to know which guys will step up.”
Lowell’s motion, ball-control offense got several open shots and was aided by several key offensive rebounds, but the Cardinals simply struggled knocking the open looks down.
“We had more shots than them, more offensive rebounds and we were controlling that part of the game, but we’re just not clicking right now,” Ray said. “I don’t think Washington is either, so I take this win with a grain of salt, but it’s always nice to win.”
Washington shot only slightly better at 33 percent, and got a game-high 11 points from senior guard Brandon Barnes, but the Eagles still appear to be struggling with team chemistry after losing all five starters from last season’s championship team.
“I didn’t expect it to be like that, but Lowell is a really good defensive team and they took away a lot of things,” said Washington head coach Jolinko Lassiter. “With the team we have, being more inexperienced than youthful, it was tough for us to make that adjustment.”
Barnes carried the Eagles through the first half with nine points, but Washington trailed 16-13 at the halftime break. Barnes’ effectiveness waned in the second half, however, and he didn’t take a shot in the fourth quarter.
Although he didn’t play substantial minutes and only scored two points, Washington also showed a substantial inside presence with 6-foot-5 senior forward Joshua Jones.
“He brings a lot to the table and there’s not a lot of guys his height and his size in our league,” Lassiter said. “He’s basically like a football player, like a lineman, out there on the court.”
While the game between the league rivals means little in the grand scheme of the season, both coaches managed the final minutes of the game as if it were a AAA title matchup, burning timeouts and strategizing in the key moments.
“You don’t like to play another AAA [team] this early and you go into the game like that, but when it comes down to the last 2 or 3 minutes, it becomes meaningful,” Ray said.
Jonathon Li — 8
Avery Nicastro-Aikman — 7
Bryan Robinson — 5
Taylor Tsang — 4
Two players tied with 3 points
Brandon Barnes — 11
Austin Hedani — 8
Gordon Kwan — 3
Nick Lam — 3
Two players tied with 2 points