Boys NorCal Regionals: Intimidating Mitty cruises past Casa Grande

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

SAN JOSE — Playing against one of Northern California’s most decorated basketball programs, Casa Grande came out tentative and scored just five points in the first quarter Thursday night at Archbishop Mitty High.

Hey, the Gauchos have had worse periods — like the third quarter of this NorCal Division 2 quarterfinal game, when they were outscored 27-6 in a contest that went from hard-fought to hardly fair and a 71-43 Mitty victory in a hurry.

Mitty’s Fien Memorial Pavilion is an intimidating place to play. Not so much because of the student section that bills itself as The Pit; it was loud, but certainly no more so than, say, the Analy gym. The scary thing about Mitty is the printed signs on the walls reminding visitors that the Monarchs had the No. 3 athletic program in the nation in 2008-09 (according to Sports Illustrated), and the fourth best in 2009-10 (ranked by MaxPreps).

Mitty won NorCal basketball championships in 2007 and 2008 — losing each time to Mater Dei of Santa Ana in the state final — and was the top seed last year when it was upset by Woodcreek in a semifinal game. Mitty is No. 1 again this year, a tough assignment for No. 9 Casa Grande.

“I watched film of them, and it was like ‘holy smokes,’ ” Casa coach James Forni said. “That’s why they get all the accolades, and why they’re such a storied program. I was put to ease by our players. They calmed me down. They wanted to play the best. They didn’t back down.”

Mitty plays a style of basketball very similar to Casa Grande’s — methodical half-court offense and tenacious, in-your-grille defense. Only the Monarchs do it better than just about anybody. This was the 10th straight game in which they held their opponent to 45 points or fewer.

Mitty’s defensive effort begins and ends with 6-foot-7 sophomore center Aaron Gordon, an active and athletic force in the paint who is being scrutinized by just about every Division I college program in the West. His older brother, Drew is playing at New Mexico and Aaron might be better. He was MVP of the West Catholic League this year, the first sophomore to win that honor.

Gordon grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked four shots, and he got plenty of help from his well-drilled Monarchs teammates.

“It’s the whole team, but guys play with more confidence with him back there,” Mitty coach Tim Kennedy said. “He’s like a security blanket.”

One thing Gordon didn’t do Thursday night was light up the scoreboard. That was a result of his own trouble putting the ball on the floor, and more important, a superb defensive effort by forward Nick Sherry.

Sherry is headed to UNLV because of his ability to quarterback the Casa Grande offense on the football field. Thursday, he was all about defense. He fronted Gordon for the bulk of the night and held him to 12 points.

“Yeah, I came in and said I’d be happy to let Joey and everyone else do the scoring,” Sherry noted afterward. “My whole goal was to take out the big boy. I knew he was a challenge, and I was up for the challenge.”

The game wasn’t a blowout from start to finish. After going scoreless over the final 4:25 of the first quarter and the initial 2:10 of the second, the Gauchos found themselves down 17-5. Mitty twice pushed its lead to 13 points in the second period. But Casa climbed back into contention with an 8-2 run to finish out the first half.

Senior guard Joey Rodriguez led the Gauchos’ charge. He was a force in the second quarter, scoring 11 of Casa Grande’s 16 points. Five of those points came from the free-throw line as Rodriguez repeatedly drove into traffic and drew fouls.

Rodriguez led all scorers with 23 points. Senior forward Josh Hayworth added 10, and Sherry had seven.

The Gauchos were down just 28-21 at halftime, and 32-25 at the 5:32 mark of the third quarter, when the Monarchs called timeout. That’s when the roof collapsed on Casa — perhaps weighed down by all those Mitty championship banners.

The Gauchos, finally worn down by Mitty’s superior depth, scored just two points over the remainder of the quarter, on a pair of free throws by Hayworth. Mitty, meanwhile, went on a spree, hitting from inside and out, and nailing 12 of 15 shots in the period.

When Connor Gorman scored on an inbounds pass just before the buzzer to end the third, Mitty (29-2) was up 55-27 and on its way to a semifinal game against St. Mary’s.

The Gauchos (27-6) were chopped down in this game, but they emerged from the post-game locker room to hearty applause from the fans who had made the long drive from Petaluma. Each player went down the line and hugged not just his own family, but his teammates’, too.

“This season was unbelievable,” Hayworth said. “And I couldn’t have done it with a better group of guys. When I go on and play in college, if I play in college, I’ll never forget my high school career. On the court and off, these are some of the funnest times I’ve had in my life.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.