All season, the Berkeley High boys’ basketball team has been able to overcome its shortcomings: lack of height and little inside game. Among the Yellowjackets’ victories this season were an opponent with a 6-foot-11 center and a 6-foot-9 center. But Friday against powerful Oakland Tech, a bigger team finally solved the Berkeley defensive system.
Using big guards to throw the ball over the top of the Berkeley full-court press, the Bulldogs (10-1) had little trouble getting the ball up the court. Once in a half-court set, they fed their twin big men, 6-foot-9 DeMarshay Johnson and 6-foot-7 Leon Rowe, for easy baskets in the paint, leading to a 74-58 Oakland Tech win.
Rowe was instrumental in getting the Bulldogs an early lead, as he poured in 13 first-quarter points on his way to a 26-point game.
“Leon Rowe is a tremendous force, and you have to defend him with your whole team,” Berkeley head coach Mike Gragnani said after the game. “It’s not fair to have one guy guard him.”
The ’Jackets (8-5), on the other hand, started ice-cold, missing their first six shots. But senior wingman Louis Riordan hit a three-pointer at the buzzer, and Berkeley trailed just 18-14 at the end of the first quarter, despite the offensive avalanche by Rowe, who is just a sophomore.
Berkeley got within a point of the Bulldogs at 20-19 with five minutes left in the first half, but they couldn’t tie the score, and the visitors pulled away slowly behind three straight buckets by point guard Kenneth Moore, who finished with 11 points. The Oakland Tech lead was 11 by halftime, and the ’Jackets wouldn’t get closer than nine points for the rest of the game.
Part of the reason for the defeat was a poor shooting day by nearly every Berkeley player. Point guard Ryan Davis was just 3-of-12 from the floor, forward Ramone Reed hit just two of his seven shots, and the team combined to shoot 26-71 on the night.
“We had good transition opportunities, but for some reason we pulled away from them,” Gragnani said. “We just weren’t aggressive with the ball.”
Gragnani’s players had ample reason to avoid going inside, as Rowe had five blocks, including three within two minutes of the second quarter. After that impressive burst, the Berkeley players mostly settled for jumpers from the outside, safely away from Rowe’s and Johnson’s reaches.
The one exception was guard Byron St. Jules. Usually noted for his tenacious defense, St. Jules wasn’t afraid to take the ball among the tall trees, hitting several layups over and around the Bulldog big men on his way to scoring 20 points.
“B.J. was the one bright spot,” Gragnani said. “He played great, and he wasn’t affected by the big guys.”
Berkeley now heads into league play, and the coach said he scheduled a tough game on purpose.
“I felt this would be a good test to see where we are,” he said. “Obviously we’ve got some things to work on, but we’ll bounce back from this.”
“I tell my players that a basketball season is like war. I’m comfortable going to war with these guys.”