By Jeremy Balan
As the three-time defending Central Coast Section champions with most of its core of players returning, it was assumed all season that the Sacred Heart Cathedral boys basketball team was the best squad in Division III.
That assumption became a reality on Saturday at Santa Clara University.
The top-seeded Irish led 25-15 after the first quarter and 45-24 at the half against second-seeded El Camino and cruised to a 71-53 win to clinch their fourth-consecutive CCS title.
Standout Sacred Heart senior forward Joshua Fox returned for his first game since sustaining an ankle injury in the West Catholic Athletic League championship game two weeks ago to score eight points and collect a game-high 13 rebounds, but with fellow senior forward Taylor Johns in foul trouble throughout, the Irish guards ruled the afternoon.
Sacred Heart guards Tyler Petroni, Khalil James and Herman Pratt all scored in double figures, led by Petroni’s team-high 17 points, and the Irish (25-5) shot just over 58 percent from the floor and 60 percent from 3-point range in the first half to take a commanding lead.
“Everybody here saw that it wasn’t the big guys. It was the guards shooting lights out,” said El Camino head coach Archie Junio. “We were banking on them mission some shots, but they weren’t missing many shots from the outside.”
Petroni, who missed Sacred Heart’s semifinal win over Valley Christian due to an illness, shot 7-of-11 from the floor and 3-of-6 from 3-point range.
“People look at him from a physical standpoint an think he can’t play, but he’s a tough kid and he can play,” said Sacred Heart head coach Darrell Barbour. “A lot of people can overlook him because he’s quiet, doesn’t say much and is unassuming, but at the end of the game, he’s kicked your tail.”
El Camino junior guard Michael Smith poured in a game-high 23 points and senior guard Anthony Knight added 14, but the Colts (25-5) could not cut the deficit below 13 points in the second half.
Smith and Knight played their parts, but the Colts were without junior point guard Elijah White, who is averaging 15.5 points per game this season. White was reportedly suspended from the school this week for setting off a fire alarm.
“We needed our full arsenal today and unfortunately we didn’t have it,” Junio said. “Even with Elijah, we might not have stood a chance anyway. We needed to be clicking on all cylinders and we weren’t today.”
The strength of Fox’s ankle has been a topic of constant discussion for two weeks and the senior came down awkwardly on occasion against El Camino, but showed some explosiveness getting into the air as Sacred Heart’s primary rebounder.
“I’m just happy to be out on the court and out there with everybody. I’m tired and I’m out of shape, but it was still fun,” Fox said. “It’s still kinda sore and I’m not 100 percent yet – not even 90 yet – but everyone is helping me on defense. Everything is so new to me, it feels like I’m learning the game all over again.”
Fox will likely need to play a key part if the Irish plan to make a run for the Division III state championship. Some have declared the Irish as a favorite in the division, but Barbour’s focus is still on the immediate future.
“I don’t talk about it.” Barbour said, when asked about the potential of a state title. “Every day we just try to get better. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m not a fortune teller, but this team is different – not because of the talent, but how they play together. You don’t get that every year, so we’re going to ride this out and see how far we can go with it.”
Barbour may deflect talk of a state championship, but the Irish players are explicit with their intentions.
“We’re looking to go all the way in our last year,” Petroni said. “It always feels good to win, but we just want to keep going, because our next loss is our last game.”
“We knew we should have got this one,” Fox added. “Now we can check this off, go on to NorCals and state, hopefully. Our new record is 0-0. We haven’t won anything now.”
Sacred Heart Cathedral
Tyler Petroni – 17
Herman Pratt – 13
Khalil James – 12
Joshua Fox – 8
Taylor Johns – 6
Michael Smith – 23
Anthony Knight – 14
Jalen Bitanga – 12
Matt Azzopardi – 2
Alex Huerta – 2