First published in the Feb. 17 print issue of the San Marino Tribune.
Mihail Papadopulos is typically among the most accessible basketball coaches in the business, with the exception to the pattern which took place last weekend.
San Marino High School’s head man was laying uncharacteristically low following the Titans’ unexpected loss to Irvine’s University High School in a CIF Division 4AA first-round playoff game last Friday.
“As can be imagined, this past Friday was devastating to all of us,” said Papadopulos when he emerged.
A week earlier, the Titans were at one of the highest points in the program’s history, having clinched a share of its first Rio Hondo League championship since 1981 with a thrilling overtime win over South Pasadena on Friday, Feb. 4.
The payoff for three months of hard work came a week later when San Marino, which was seeded a lofty No. 2 in the tournament bracket, hosted the Trojans for what many felt was a routine first-round encounter against unranked, overlooked University. But the brash visitor had other ideas and seemed to use the relative anonymity to its advantage, riding the efforts of guard Joseph Purser and small forward Ali Wahedi to an 85-80 win inside a stunned, silent Dingus Memorial Gymnasium.
“As can be imagined, this past Friday was devastating to all of us,” said Papadopulos. “This first-round game felt more like a third-round game, based on the level of competition and intensity.”
As quickly as the Titans barged into the community’s consciousness they seemed to abandon it, ending what the coach called a “magical season” with a 20-3 record.
“There was no doubt that University was going to be a tough first-round opponent despite their 12-15 record as they came in with a good-sized squad, were talented and ran a very specific zone defense that would require a focused night from our players,” he said.
The Titans got off to a slow start and trailed 21-10 at the end of the first quarter. But the gritty Titans spent the next three quarters chipping away at the deficit until they finally evened the contest, 80-80, with 40 seconds left regulation.
But the Trojans canned a long three-pointed from the corner, then added a layup off a steal in the waning moments to pull off the upset and advance to the second round.
San Marino’s ferocious comeback was led by senior Michael Azinge, who amassed 32 points and 16 rebounds, and Adrian Huang, who added 24 points and 17 rebounds. Jayden Tse pitched in with 15 points for the Titans, who suffered only their third loss of the season, albeit a big one.
“We are proud of how hard our boys fought and competed all season long,” Papadopulos said. “Michael and Adrian had monster nights, which tells part of the story of how determined our boys were to continue playing. That’s what makes this defeat tougher. Our team this season displayed a toughness and competitiveness that was simply unique and historic and they put it out on the court every night.”
Papadopulos said he hopes the team will be remembered for breaking the 41-year “curse” and earning the school’s first Rio Hondo League championship since 1981, defeating La Cañada at home for the first time in 32 years, earning a No. 1 ranking for most of the season in Division 4AA and moving up the ladder to No. 4 ranking in Division 4 for the state of California.
“We are going to miss this tremendous senior class,” Papadopulos said. “It’s not solely because of their basketball abilities; we are mostly going to miss them for being wonderful young men, for their selfless attitude, their advocacy to take a larger roster and their willingness to work every day and not care who received the credit. Their work ethic and passion on the floor is something that we could all identify with in our community. Their legacy goes way beyond the wins and that is what we will remember most. Often in our society, young athletes are encouraged to think about themselves first, yet this group put the team first and, in doing so, elevated San Marino basketball to new heights and excited our community with some thrilling and unforgettable moments.”
All season, Papadopulos has been adamant on calculating where the Titans’ immediate success has figured in the bigger picture.
“We are grateful and now look forward to building from this season,” he concluded.