SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — Throughout both of his stints at the helm of the Burlingame basketball program, Jeff Dowd’s teams have always played excellent defense.
On Saturday, that defense finally won the longtime coach his first section championship, and the second in school history, as the Panthers took down Santa Cruz in a 43-39 grinder of a CCS Division III championship Game.
“It just feels great,” Dowd said. “I’m so proud of the kids, the grit they showed and how resilient they were.”
Sean Richardson scored a game-high 13 points, with three 3-pointers from the volleyball lines, including the game-sealing shot with 14.4 seconds left, and Will Uhrich drew four charges to prevent the top-seeded Cardinals from driving to the basket.
“When I can’t score, I just try to focus on defending and bringing energy,” Uhrich said. “The charges bring energy to the fans and the guys on the bench. That leads to scoring and better plays.”
Scoring was tough to come by for both teams, but Richardson’s deep shots vaulted second-seeded Burlingame (11-4) to victory. He connected three times from well beyond NBA range; the first came midway through the second quarter and the final two came in the fourth, with the last one coming with 14.4 seconds left to open up a six-point lead and secure the championship.
Santa Cruz (19-1) trailed by seven late in the third but got the final four of the quarter and tied the game with 5:20 left in the fourth on a Kosi Warren-House 3-pointer. Out of a timeout, Richardson slipped a pass through the defense to Lou Martineau, putting the Panthers back on top for good. It was the lone basket of the game for Martineau, who started despite spraining his ankle during Tuesday’s quarterfinal victory over Aptos. He also started in center field for Burlingame’s baseball team earlier in the day, walking and driving in a run in a 7-5 win over Carmel.
The top-seeded Cardinals missed two free throws that would have tied the game with 2:28 left on a night where they made just 4-of-10 attempts at the line, and Richardson hit his second deep three with the shot clock winding down to put Burlingame up by five.
Riley Van Wickle scored at the other end, but a Uhrich offensive rebound and Tyler Mausehund jumper with 1:04 left made it 40-35. Aden Curry, who scored a team-high 12 for the hosts, scored with 46.1 left to make it a one-possession game. Rather than foul five times to put Burlingame on the line, Santa Cruz opted to let the Panthers run the clock down, and though they forced a shot from well outside of conventional range, Richardson sank it to seal the game.
“I practice it a lot,” Richardson said of the long-range shots. “I shoot the deep ones since you never know when you’ll need them.”
Richardson made four of his team’s nine 3-pointers to offset an inability to score in the paint. With Jack Busenhart and Alan Chen defending the rim for the Cardinals, Burlingame made just five two-pointers for the entire game, and one of those was from just inside the 3-point line. The Panthers didn’t have a single field goal until the final seconds of the first quarter when M.J. Dowd, Jeff’s son, sank a deep three to cut the Santa Cruz lead to 8-4.
“It felt pretty good when he knocked that first three down,” Dowd said of his son. “I thought his defense came along tonight.”
The shot accounted for the sophomore’s lone points of the game, but it sparked the Burlingame offense for the rest of the evening. The Panthers outscored Santa Cruz 14-7 in the second quarter and put up another 13 in the third, opening up a 31-24 lead on threes by Mausehund and Richardson before the Cardinals closed the quarter on a 6-0 run, with Busenhart scoring and dishing out one of his four assists before Chen finished the run on an uncontested putback.
Despite going on the run to end the third, tying the game early in the fourth and allowing just two points in the first three minutes of the final quarter, it was the same story yet again for Santa Cruz, losing in a section championship game for the fourth year in a row. The prior three had all been in Division IV, and they came against opponents with star post players.
Ethan Menzies scored 38 when Half Moon Bay beat the Cardinals in 2018 and Carmel beat Santa Cruz in both 2019 and 2020 behind big games from J.T. Byrne. The Panthers didn’t have such size at their disposal, though sophomore forward Zaden Martin and center Kyle Haslam held their own. Martin hit a 3-pointer in the third quarter, one of four that the Panthers knocked down in the period. Mausehund had two, scoring six of his eight points during the stretch.
Santa Cruz’s two top scorers will be back next year. Curry is just a sophomore, while Warren-House, who scored nine, is a junior. He added a putback with 0.8 left to finish off the night, but it was too late for the Cardinals to play the foul game. The timeout called after his putback simply meant the Panthers got to celebrate twice while Santa Cruz once again looked on in disappointment.
“We had a great season, but we choke in big games,” said Matt Burns, who knocked down a pair of 3-pointers. “We would have rather lost earlier in the season rather than tonight. They were just mentally tougher than us.”
The sentiment was echoed by head coach Lawan Milhouse, whose teams have reached section championship games in five of his eight seasons but won just one, claiming the Division IV crown in 2015.
“They were mentally tougher than we were tonight,” Milhouse admitted. “We missed a lot of layups, we were 4-for-10 at the free throw line, we had a lot of mental lapses defensively. We told them (Uhrich) would sacrifice his body and take a charge, and we still ran over him four times.”
Though Curry and Warren-House will both return next season, four starters played their final game for the Cardinals on Saturday night, suffering their first and only loss of the season.
“Those guys worked their butts off in this program for four years. There weren’t a lot of excuses,” Milhouse said of the seniors. “Their parents allowed them to be players and be coached by the coaches, and they were young adults from their freshman year.”
No seniors saw the floor for Burlingame on Saturday, and the two on the roster each appeared in just three games over the course of the season.
“The great thing about this group is all the pieces are coming back,” Dowd said.
The returning core has high aspirations moving forward, having made jumps each year. As freshmen, they fell in the second round, and as sophomores, they lost in the quarterfinals. With a section championship under their belts, the sky’s the limit in the year ahead.
“The goal is to go undefeated, go Open Division and see where it goes from there,” Uhrich said.