BURLINGAME, Calif. — There was no shortage of confidence in Burlingame’s jam-packed gym on Saturday night.
It wasn’t lacking in a Panthers team that never wavered despite a lengthy third-quarter drought or a home crowd that was hoping to see a coronation, and it certainly wasn’t lacking in the group of parents that printed a banner proclaiming the team as back-to-back CCS Division III Champions, bringing it to the game and unfurling it following the final buzzer of a 55-46 victory over fourth-seeded Aptos.
Yet, there were plenty of reasons to have doubt.
A team led by four-year varsity seniors battled injuries all season long, struggled in shocking losses to the likes of Aragon, Pittsburg and San Mateo and settled for a shared PAL South championship, rather than an outright crown. More relevant within Saturday night’s game was the presence of Aptos point guard Cameron Saldana, who was indisputably the best player on the court.
Saldana kept the Mariners in the game the entire way, scoring a game-high 30 points by shooting 9-for-15 from the floor and making nine of 10 free throws, but Burlingame (21-5) never wavered. After facing a four-point deficit when Saldana opened the final quarter with a three-point play, the Panthers responded with an 11-3 surge, taking a 39-37 lead on Sean Richardson’s and-1 and going ahead for good on a Carson Robenalt corner three with 6:10 left.
“This is a special group,” head coach Jeff Dowd said. “They went through some tough times with the injuries, but I knew when everyone got healthy that we would be a tough out, and I’m proud of the effort and enthusiasm that we play with.”
There was no shortage of enthusiasm in the sold-out gym, with the Burlingame students more than filling their designated section and Mariners fans bringing plenty of support up the coast for the visitors. With Aptos (22-5) leading 34-33 after three quarters, both teams were greeted with a raucous ovation before the start of the final period.
“It was a great crowd,” Dowd said. “It carried the boys to victory.”
In a year where large crowds rarely graced Burlingame’s gym, a postage stamp-sized building with a low roof that can wreak havoc on the eardrums, Saturday was a breath of fresh air. The traditional rivalry game with Serra wasn’t played this season, the PAL opted to have boys and girls teams play at opposite sites on Fridays in an effort to reduce crowds and school districts imposed capacity limits when the omicron variant of COVID swept through the region in January.
With so many eyes, including an unlucky few without tickets peering in through the windows, it was Saldana who shone the brightest, yet the Panthers still emerged victorious. Saldana’s teammates accounted for just 16 total points, a stark contrast to a far more balanced Burlingame attack.
Jacob Yamagishi was the lead scorer for the Panthers with 20 on Saturday night, a poetic outcome for a member of the four-year core who had been derailed by injuries throughout his sophomore and junior seasons. He knocked down a pair of threes in the opening quarter, hit another on the opening possession of the third to put Burlingame up 30-21 and answered Saldana’s and-1 with his fourth, cutting the Aptos lead to 37-36. His fifth and final 3-pointer put the hosts up 49-44 with 2:11 remaining and gave Richardson his ninth assist, tying a CCS Division III Championship Game record.
Richardson, the fiery leader of the veteran core, didn’t score until the fourth quarter, but had taken just three shots until that point. His drive with 5:31 left gave the Panthers a 44-39 advantage, his free throw with 18.7 seconds left accounted for the final point and the buzzer sounded with the ball fittingly in his hands.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to win, whether it’s 12 assists, 40 points, whatever,” said Richardson, whose deep 3-pointer iced the win over Santa Cruz in the 2021 title game.
Saturday marked Burlingame’s sixth consecutive win, and a common thread across all six games has been the offensive evolution of Will Uhrich, who scored 14 against the Mariners. Uhrich, who accepted a preferred walk-on offer to play football at Arizona, has evolved into a driver and slasher who’s nearly impossible to stop when he goes downhill. He’s shooting just 16% on 3-pointers for the season but boasts a 51% mark from inside the arc, where he earned all of his points against Aptos. He scored Burlingame’s first four, then six straight in the second after the Mariners had taken a 21-16 lead.
“He’s always been strong driving to the basket, especially against bigger defenders,” Dowd said of Uhrich.
The final five points of the half came from Lou Martineau, who scored all of his eight in the second quarter to help offset Saldana, who was responsible for all 12 of Aptos’ points in the period.
“He has all my respect,” Richardson said of Saldana. “He’s the best player we’ve seen.”
Saldana got the ball rolling in the second with a pair of 3-pointers, the latter of which came with a hand in his face, and he scored another six on a pair of free throws and two drives.
“He’s been playing really well for us all year,” Aptos head coach Brian Bowyer said. “We tried to get the ball inside, but they put so much pressure on the ball defensively and do such a good job in the half-court.”
6-foot-5 center Jack Spinelli posed a matchup problem for the Panthers, but Burlingame limited him to eight points, nine rebounds and three assists. Tyler Mausehund, who was tasked with slowing Spinelli despite yielding four inches to the big man, scored just two points but made them count, flying in for a putback to put the home side up seven with 1:10 remaining.
“As a team, we just focus on helping off the ball,” Mausehund said. “I had to front the guy, deny him the ball and do all I can to stop him. I knew he was gonna at least score a couple; I just needed to do my job and minimize him.”
Every single point one of Burlingame’s 55 points came from a senior, with Robenalt chipping in five off the bench on an early putback and the go-ahead 3-pointer. Trevor Brady scored four points for Aptos; the junior was the lone underclassman to record a point. An early ankle injury to junior forward Harrison Bloom hampered the Mariners’ depth, as did the exits of twin brothers Marcel and Dante Martin. Marcel fouled out with 5:52 remaining and Dante left shortly after when he experienced vertigo-like symptoms.
The physical nature of the game and a close defeat could have understandably left the Mariners feeling bitter, especially after coming up short in their quest to win the program’s first section crown since 1986, but Bowyer expressed nothing but gratitude.
“To have two straight games like this with this many people enjoying themselves like they did, very few high school teams have one of these games, and we had two of them,” the fourth-year head coach said, alluding to a semifinal win over Santa Cruz. “I’m so happy for the guys.”