ATHERTON, Calif. — In Mike Molieri’s decade as Menlo-Atherton’s head coach, he’s never had a team improve over the course of the season like his 2021-22 group.
He’s also never had to deal with such a rowdy unit.
“Sometimes our aggressiveness turns to recklessness,” he said.
The Bears’ aggressive but reckless nature was on full display in Tuesday night’s CCS Division I quarterfinal as they jumped out to a 15-point lead over Los Altos, let the Eagles come all the way back, then won anyway, 57-55, on Douglas Adams III’s layup at the buzzer.
“It was the ending you always hope for,” said Adams, who took Jalen Williams’ inbound pass with 2.8 seconds on the clock, dribbled once and scored over a defender, setting off a wild celebration that, in the spirit of an M-A team that often gets reckless, nearly turned ugly.
Adams, who plays linebacker and defensive end on the football field, stood over his defender in the aftermath of the play while being mobbed by both his teammates and the M-A 6th Man, resulting in a scrum that was quickly resolved when officials and coaches separated players before any pushing and shoving could start.
“I’m an emotional player. It’s just how I play,” Adams said. “He was talking to me before the play. He told me I was weak and said he had more points than me – OK, you can say that, but at the end of the game, it’s about who comes out victorious. Me and my guys came out victorious, and that’s all that matters.”
Adams’ heroics capped off a fourth quarter in which sixth-seeded Los Altos (19-6) rallied from a 10-point deficit behind Andrew Reilly and Jake Skaggs, tying the game on a pair of occasions. An intentional foul on Adams with 3:28 remaining allowed the Eagles to get within two as Reilly knocked down a pair of free throws, then hit a 3-pointer after his team retained possession, and Skaggs scored on a drive with 2:49 remaining to close a 10-1 run and tie the game at 51.
The pair each scored 11 in the fourth quarter. Skaggs finished with a game-high 24 points and 11 rebounds, and Reilly wasn’t far behind with 23 and 9.
“Those are two very special kids, on and off the court,” Los Altos head coach Trevor Naas said. “That’s one of the toughest parts of a loss like this, knowing that I won’t get to coach those guys at practice tomorrow.”
For all that Reilly and Skaggs managed, the Eagles suffered from a lack of secondary scoring. M-A, meanwhile, had just seven players score to Los Altos’ six, but enjoyed a much more balanced attack. Ryan Anderson finished with 13 points, including a go-ahead layup with 2:19 to go. He was fouled on the play and missed the free throw, but Menlo-Atherton (18-6) forced a turnover and went up four with 1:51 left on a pair of Connor Cadigan free throws after the 6-foot-5 senior drew Varun Madabhushi’s fifth foul. It turned out to mark the last time Madabhushi would see the court in a year where the 6-foot-4 wing missed nearly two months with an ankle injury.
Still, the Eagles had one last rally in them. Skaggs scored off an inbound pass from Zach Fagin with 1:12 left, and after Anderson rebounded his own miss but got called for a travel, Reilly drove all the way down the floor in transition to tie the game with 27.4 on the clock. Molieri called timeout with 14.4 remaining, and though Cadigan couldn’t hold on to the ball in the post, it was deflected out of bounds by a Los Altos player with 2.8 left, setting up one last opportunity for Adams.
“I had a little woosah moment as soon as the play started,” Adams said. “My heart was racing, the pressure was high.”
His layup ensured the Bears would live to see another day, setting up a Thursday matchup with second-seeded Mountain View after the Spartans rolled to a 54-30 win over Silver Creek.
“In a unique way, they drive me nuts,” Molieri said of his team.
Anderson, who grabbed seven rebounds, echoed the sentiment, saying, “we go to war in practice. We’ll get into altercations, which isn’t the best part, but it shows how much we love each other. It’s been like this all season.”
That physical nature was on full display in a game where the teams combined for 11 held balls and 45 fouls.
“We could have called 75,” referee Chris Hirano said.
A game defined by the constant sound of bodies crashing to the floor in pursuit of loose balls played to the Bears’ favor in the early stages. Menlo-Atherton took a 29-14 halftime lead behind a 15-5 second quarter, closing the first half on an 8-0 run over the final minute. Jalen Williams hit a three from the wing, then made one of two free throws. Adams grabbed the offensive rebound after the San Leandro transfer missed the second and made a pair of his own from the line, and Williams scored again off a steal to send his team into the break up 15.
“We have a run-and-gun team,” said Williams, who scored a team-high 20 points. “We like to push the pace, finish layups in contact and go to the free throw line.”
The teams combined to attempt 53 free throws, including 18 in the second quarter alone. Los Altos went 17-for-25 on the night, with Skaggs making eight of his 12 and Reilly sinking six of his eight. M-A was 14-of-28, including 6-for-14 during a second quarter that seemed like it would never end.
The Eagles opened the third with a Shawn Toney 3-pointer, but the Bears extended the lead back to 15 again when Williams made one of two free throws and Cadigan, who finished with eight points, scored after three offensive rebounds and a held ball kept possession. Los Altos closed to within five at 34-29 when Skaggs and Reilly authored a 7-0 run; Skaggs delivered a steal and three-point play with 3:08 left in the quarter and Reilly added a pair of free throws after a technical foul. Menlo-Atherton still took a nine-point lead into the fourth, with Jon Goker hitting a three off the bench to answer a Reilly drive and Anderson providing an and-1 with 2.6 left in the period.
“A lot of our guards are younger, so I knew my main job was to score and take on the load for the most part,” Anderson said.
A Johno Price three put the Bears up 47-37 with 6:48 left, and Williams connected to answer a Skaggs and-1 to make restore a 10-point lead before the Eagles went on an 11-1 run to tie the game for the first time since there was a minute left in the opening quarter.
“Our response in the second half after being down 15 was awesome,” Naas said. “The energy, effort and fight in our guys was tremendous.”
That fight nearly went from a figurative one to a literal one in the moments following the game, but staff was able to quell the scene.
“The referee did a great job of getting our players out of the crowd,” Naas added.
Had the scene turned any uglier, the Bears could have easily been dealing with disciplinary action that could have taken players out of Thursday’s semifinal against Mountain View, a game that’ll also serve as a qualifier for the CIF State Tournament, though an at-large bid could be in the works for the loser.
“I did talk to them after about how we want to win with class and lose with class,” Molieri said. “There was a little too much energy from the crowd. I’ll talk to the administration about that.”
The narrow win keeps the Bears’ hopes of winning a section title for the first time since 1988 alive. They’ve appeared in three championship games since, losing in 2007, 2008 and 2014 to the likes of Mitty and Bellarmine, and appeared in the Open Division in four out of five seasons from 2016 through 2020, twice beating Serra in the quarterfinals but coming up short in the semis. A new semifinal opportunity awaits on Thursday against the Spartans at Mountain View’s Awalt Gym.
“We’re just trying to take it all the way,” Adams said. “I’m trying to get a ring before I leave.”