MORAGA — The championship the Campolindo Cougars badly wanted was slipping away in the third quarter Friday night as a poised and polished De La Salle freshman was piling up points and threatening to break the home team’s heart.
But Campolindo hasn’t risen to the top of Bay Area boys basketball over the past two years by accident. The Cougars made their run, scoring the final seven points of the third quarter and the first seven of the fourth, but they couldn’t exhale until De La Salle missed the front end of a one-and-one free-throw opportunity with sixth-tenths of a second on the clock.
When Aidan Mahaney grabbed the rebound, it was over.
Campolindo had won the North Coast Section Open Division championship by the narrowest of margins, 51-50.
Bedlam erupted as Campolindo students spilled onto the court, reveling in the one piece of hardware this core group of players had not yet captured. Campo has won a state championship and two NorCal titles in this run. It went 15-0 against all-comers in a pandemic-shortened season last spring. It set a school record with 25 consecutive victories.
But this group hadn’t won NCS.
“It’s just an unbelievable feeling,” the St. Mary’s College-bound Mahaney said, holding the trophy after leading the Cougars with 18 points. “We’ve won state before. But this feels just as sweet. Been waiting for this moment for a long time, putting in a lot of work. To finally get this done means the world.”
The End pic.twitter.com/jKZdVky09H
— Darren Sabedra (@DarrenSabedra) February 26, 2022
Unfortunately for De La Salle, it was the Spartans’ star freshman Alec Blair, brilliant all night, who had the chance to deliver the Concord school its 15th section championship.
But as Mahaney had done at the other end just seconds earlier, Blair’s free-throw attempt that would have tied the score hit the rim and didn’t fall in.
The freshman finished with a game-high 21 points.
“There were a lot of good players on the court tonight and you can make a case that he was the best kid on the floor as a freshman,” De La Salle coach Marcus Schroeder said. “He was pretty impressive. Our team battled. It was a heck of a high school basketball game, and that’s all you could ever ask for.”
Campolindo (27-1) extended its winning streak to 21 games.
The Cougars have won 46 of 47 the past two years, the only loss coming against a Texas powerhouse at a San Diego-area holiday tournament in December.
De La Salle (22-5) threatened to become the first California school to beat Campo since Dublin did it in the semifinals of the NCS Open Division playoffs in 2020.
Instead, the Spartans fell to 0-4 against the Cougars during the Moraga school’s 46-1 stretch.
With Campo down 45-35 and time beginning to fade in the third quarter, Cade Bennett began the game-turning run with a 3-pointer. He finished with 13 points.
Then Mahaney scored to narrow the margin to 45-40 and scored again to make it 45-42 with a quarter to play.
“Our defensive intensity started to pick up and finally we started getting some shots, which was huge,” Campo coach Steven Dyer said. “I knew we could score. It was more about getting stops. We finally started to do that in the third and fourth quarter.”
Justin Yasukochi, who came off the bench to score 13 points and deliver numerous hustle plays, sliced through the lane to cut the deficit to 45-44 with seven minutes left.
Bennett’s layup put Campo on top, 46-45. Then Mahaney, at times a showman, drove through the lane to score and draw a foul — flexing a bicep in jubilation for good measure, which added a few more decibel levels to the home student section.
The free throw stretched Campo’s lead to 49-45.
“We trust each other; we’ve got great leadership on this team,” Yasukochi said. “Coming into the locker room at halftime, we knew we’d have to come out better — and we did that. Last time we played De La Salle, at Gridley, same exact thing.”
Jordan Webster ended Campo’s 14-0 run, driving for a layup to cut the deficit to two, the last of his 11 points in the game.
Yasukochi’s basket with 3:40 left pushed the margin back to four, and Blair launched a 3-pointer over Mahaney that hit the rim and bounced in, pulling De La Salle to within 51-50 with 2:39 left.
That turned out to be the final points of the game for either side.
With the ball in Mahaney’s possession as the clock hit zero, Campo celebrated the program’s first NCS title in 14 years and seventh overall.
“It was such a great game, a high-level game,” said Bennett, a senior and son of St. Mary’s College coach Randy Bennett. “We all played well. Stuck together as a team and got it done.”
The victory was the 95th for Manahey and Matt Radell, which broke the school record that Mahaney’s older brother, Carter, set two years ago.
Clutching the NCS trophy, Mahaney said, “This is not only for this year’s team. This is for last year’s seniors that didn’t get a chance at it.”
Photos: Campolindo 51, De La Salle 50