If you had told San Marino High School head basketball Coach Mihail Papadopulos at the beginning of the season that his team would get to play two playoff games at the end of the year, he probably would have agreed right then and there. Hampered by the graduation of three of his top players from a year ago and the transfer of another, Papadopulos entered the campaign with his typical positive attitude, tempered though it was by the harsh reality of an inexperienced roster.
A third place finish in the Rio Hondo League earned the Titans a wild card game against Poly last Wednesday night, and earned the many fans who traveled across the border a solid evening’s entertainment as San Marino prevailed by a final score of 43-40.
Ethan Deng led the way with 18 points, followed by Sean O’Brien (nine), Lemuel Li (seven) and Eric Fu, who scored six important points as the Titans came back to cage the Panthers. Though he didn’t score, senior Michael Baldocchi contributed with ten rebounds as the Titans advanced.
“I am just super proud of our boys and our Titan supporters,” said Papadopulos. “It was like a home game for us, it was awesome! That’s what playoff basketball is all about, it’s exciting and intense and somehow you just have to survive and advance.”
Poly led 22-19 at the half, but Deng finally loosened up and hit three 3-pointers that inspired the visitors. The Titans were able to nurse a four-point lead, and made key free throes down the stretch to preserve the win and improve to 15-12 overall.
“I thought our young group prepared well,” said Papadopulos, who brought up three extra sophomores for the post season in Quintin Hollomand, Trond Grizzell and Joey Fuerst. “We defended hard and sacrificed individuality for the benefit of our team. This was just a great team win and a great program experience. There is nothing like the intensity of a playoff game.”
But the Titans met their match two nights later, dropping a 73-58 decision in Hacienda Heights to Wilson High School, who entered the CIF Division 4AA playoffs with the #5 ranking and a 21-7 record.
The Wildcats jumped out to an 18-2 advantage midway through the first quarter and it took a Herculean effort by San Marino to keep it interesting. In fact, the Titans whittled the Wilson lead down to just 14 points before the hosts went on another of what seemed like an endless string of scoring runs.
O’Brien was able to stave off the constant pressure applied by the Wildcats to lead the team with 17 points. Lemuel Li added 11 with Deng (nine), Fu (seven points and six rebounds), Christian Mata (four) and Baldocchi (two points and nine rebounds) also contributing to the effort.
But the lingering memory of the contest might have been provided by Fuerst, who nailed two three-pointers and another hoop to finish with eight points in less than two minutes of action at the end of the contest.
“That was definitely not the start we were looking for,” said Papadopulos, with an extra helping of understatement. “They were hot and we unfortunately just started the game too timid. When you play a team like Wilson which just plays really hard, execution, taking care of the ball and shot selections are so crucial to staying connected. We tried to give them different looks but they are very good and they just kept playing hard.”
Surprisingly, San Marino outscored Wilson in the second half, but it wasn’t enough and the Titans closed up shop with a 15-13 mark.
“I am proud of our boys and the grit they showed all season long,” Papadopuklos concluded. “This season, our boys showed that they could accomplish a tremendous amount together, despite being young in varsity experience, and found success through their toughness and relentless efforts. Their togetherness was fun and I am thankful to our seniors who reinforced our culture and the importance of chemistry. I am proud that our boys accomplished another 15-win season, finished as a top-three team in league and won another playoff game. The future is bright and I am excited to see what happens to this next generation.”