BURLINGAME—Aptos High’s Cameron Saldaña seemed almost unstoppable for most of Saturday night’s Central Coast Section basketball championship, knocking in just about every shot that left his hand.
The senior guard finished with a record-setting 30 points but it wasn’t enough for the No. 4 seeded Mariners in their 55-46 loss to No. 2 Burlingame in the Division III finals Feb. 26.
Saldaña scored the most points in a D-III championship game since Riordan High’s Marquise Kately scored 29 points in the 2002 championship game.
“It was such a fun game,” Saldaña said. “Of course all the guys are a little down, a little sad, but we came so far. Everyone was doubting us.”
Saldaña mentioned despite the loss there was no reason to hang their heads low. Plus, the season is not quite over as the Mariners (22-5) earned a berth to the CIF NorCal Regional Division III playoffs.
Aptos was awarded the No. 15 seed and it will play at No. 2 Oakland (25-3) on Tuesday at 6pm.
“We’re still going to be back in the gym on Monday, there’s no reason to be sad,” Saldaña said. “My guys played their butts off and I can’t be any more proud of them.”
The Mariners took a big blow after Harrison Bloom, a big rebounder and a threat from the 3-point line, came out of the game in the first quarter with an apparent ankle injury.
“That hurt us,” said Aptos coach Brian Bowyer.
Senior forward Hassan Ayyad came off the bench to replace Bloom and they were limited with subs at that position.
“Hassan had to play multiple minutes and it’s just not easy to play when you’re tired,” Bowyer said. “But they played well, no excuses. Burlingame deserved that win and they played great.”
Senior center Jack Spinelli also got into foul trouble early, picking up his second personal foul with 3:32 left in the opening stanza. The Mariners looked a little disoriented and shots were not falling despite having plenty of chances to score.
The Panthers took advantage and came out on fire starting with senior Jacob Yamagishi, who hit a 3-pointer to put them ahead 8-2. He hit another shot from beyond the arc to extend their lead, 13-9, at the end of the first quarter.
Saldaña got the Mariners right back in mix of things with back-to-back 3-pointers of his own in the second quarter, giving them their first lead at 15-13.
Saldaña continued to roll after knocking in a jump shot from the baseline and then another one just 10 feet from the hoop.
“Right when it left my fingers I was like, ‘Oh, this is cash-money,’” he said. “But when I missed, I was like ‘gosh darn it.’ It was just such a fun game. These are games you dream about.”
Just when it seemed like the Mariners were pulling away for a bigger lead, the Panthers would come crawling back with a run of their own.
Senior guard Will Uhrich got it started with a layup that put Burlingame back on top, 22-21. His teammate, Lou Martineau, slipped past the defense for an easy layup and followed up with a 3-pointer to extend the lead to six, 27-21, going into halftime.
Saldaña had 14 points at the break but the Mariners failed to score in the final three minutes of the first half.
“It was hard for us to get it going in the beginning and in my head, coaches were just telling me ‘just go,’” he said. “I got that first bucket, the layup, and in my head I was like ‘They can’t guard me.’” So I just kept on going.”
Burlingame also kept it going to begin the second half, starting with a 3-pointer by Yamagishi.
Saldaña managed to stop the bleeding with a jump shot and a 3-pointer, pulling Aptos back to within four, 30-26.
“[Saldaña] was making crazy shots at the start,” Yamagishi said. “We were trying to contain him the whole time but he still managed to score.”
Spinelli cut the deficit to two with a wide open 15-footer and senior guard Marcel Martin tied it at 30-all, swaying all the momentum in the Mariners’ favor.
Saldaña’s energy never stopped as he continued to play one the best games of his career. He extended the lead after getting fouled and making the free throw attempt that put Aptos ahead 37-33.
“I just felt coming into this game I got so much confidence after beating Santa Cruz a couple times, especially beating Santa Cruz at their place,” Bowyer said. “Let’s just play as well as we can and just fight, and we did.”
Bowyer mentioned there were a couple of times they got beat to the loose balls and they were outrebounded, at times. The Panthers were also the best half-court defensive team they’ve faced this season.
“They’re good, they made every possession difficult,” Bowyer said. “I think until they got going, we made every possession difficult for them…they just hit some big threes when they had to.”
The Mariners’ lead slowly evaporated and they soon found themselves trailing, 44-43, with 4 minutes left in the game.
Shortly later, Yamagishi hit a gut-punching 3-pointer and Tyler Mausehund’s layup sealed the deal for the Panthers, who won their second-straight D-III title.
“We just bounced off each other,” Yamagishi said. “One of us scores, we all get hyped. We just started flowing and you can see it when you watch.”
Yamagishi said he was happy about winning the CCS title but now he’s eager to play in the CIF NorCal Regional tournament. The Panthers earned the No. 9 seed in the D-II field and they will play No. 8 San Ramon Valley on Tuesday at 6pm.
Aptos earned the No. 15 seed in the D-III field and it will play No. 2 Oakland also on the same day and time.
“How lucky are we to have another basketball game?” Bowyer said. “There are a lot of teams out there that wish they were playing in the NorCal tournament and we’re in it. We’re going to go out, we’re going to have fun and we’re just going to keep on going.”