By Jeremy Balan
SAN MATEO — Early on in Sacred Heart Cathedral’s West Catholic Athletic League semifinal matchup with Serra, The Jungle and the Padres’ defensive pressure were eating the Irish alive.
But after the final buzzer, The Jungle was silent and the Irish were on their way to the WCAL championship game.
Sacred Heart trailed 23-10 after the first quarter, but rallied back to win 58-54 on Friday night at Junipero Serra High School.
Sacred Heart senior forward Taylor Johns, who drew the most scorn from the Serra crowd and struggled to score for most of the game, put in the final four points to break a 54-54 tie.
The first basket came on an assist from fellow senior forward Joshua Fox, who drove into the lane then dished the ball to Johns, who banked in a contested layup to put the Irish (22-4) up 56-54 with 44 seconds remaining.
With Johns struggling offensively, Fox carried the Irish through the middle quarters and finished with a team-high 21 points and a game-high 14 rebounds, but no play was more important as his assist to Johns on the game-winning score.
“I believe in him and we’ve been together for so long, he’s like my brother,” Fox said. “It’s our senior year and we want to end with a bang.”
The bang came on the next Irish possession, after a Serra turnover gave Sacred Heart possession of the ball.
With the Padres (21-5) pressing and looking for a turnover, Johns snuck behind the Serra defense and after the Sacred Heart guards broke the press, Johns got the ball all alone and slammed in a two-handed dunk to seal the Irish victory with 14 seconds left.
Johns also had four blocks, including three on standout Serra forward Henry Caruso in the fourth quarter. Caruso led all scorers with 22 points and had a team-high 10 rebounds.
“It felt really good and it felt good just to make them quiet,” Johns said of the Serra crowd that heckled him from the tip-off. “It was a big shot for me, because I didn’t have a good game offensively.”
Serra appeared to go for the steal on the final Sacred Heart possession instead of fouling to send one of the Irish guards to the free throw line and once Johns got the ball, it was too late.
“The goal was to try and get a 5 [second] count and then try to get a trap and a 10 [second] count,” said Serra head coach Chuck Rapp. “As soon as the ball got over halfcourt, we wanted to foul. We gambled and it didn’t pay off.”
Johns may have put the finishing touches on the win, but it was Fox that almost single-handedly brought the Irish back in the game. The senior scored nine points in the second quarter to help the Irish cut the Serra lead to 32-26 at the half.
“He realized that he had to be a little bit more aggressive, because we were struggling,” said Sacred Heart head coach Darrell Barbour. “The beauty of it is that I didn’t even have to tell him. No one had to tell him he had to step up. He could see how the game was going and he took it upon himself.”
Sacred Heart took its first lead at 33-32 with 6:36 remaining in the third quarter, after a pair of free throws from senior guard Tyler Petroni, but the lead changed hands six times after that.
“These are two good teams in the WCAL and everyone in the WCAL makes a run,” Rapp said. “I knew they were going to come back and once they were over us, I knew we would come back. It’s just a tough loss.”
As well as the Irish played in the final three quarters, the first may have been their worst quarter of the season. Serra’s trapping pressure defense overwhelmed the young Sacred Heart guards, and the Irish committed six turnovers and missed their first five shots from the floor.
“We need our point guards to play better,” Barbour said. “I don’t care what level you play at, you have to get good point guard play. You can have four other great players on the floor, but that point guard has to manage the team. When they settled down, our team played better.”
Sacred Heart moves on to the championship game on Saturday night at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, where top-seeded Mitty and two-time defending WCAL Player of the Year Aaron Gordon await. The Irish dropped both regular-season games to the Monarchs this season, including a overtime heartbreaker in the league finale last Saturday.
“I’m always into what we do. It’s how I coach and it’s what I believe in,” Barbour said. “If we execute, it will be another great game. Our margin of error is much less than theirs, because [Gordon] is such a great player. We don’t have to play perfect, but we can’t have big lulls like we had tonight.”
Sacred Heart Cathedral
Joshua Fox – 21
Taylor Johns – 11
Khalil James – 8
Herman Pratt – 6
Two players tied with 5 points
Henry Caruso – 22
Andre Miller – 12
Jason Barsocchini – 8
Josaf Zamora – 5
Stephen Grosey – 3
Here is another bonus video from our friend George Nguyen and Yay Area’s Finest.