By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
CLOVERDALE — Football players rounding into basketball shape have rough edges as St. Helena showed in falling to skilled, athletic Hoopa Valley in the Cloverdale High boys’ tournament Friday.
Hoopa Valley’s pressing defense and fearless deep shooting — a winning combination for years — was too much for a thin St. Helena squad that stayed close until late in the 72-54 semifinal.
The Warriors face Roseland University Prep in today’s final. The Knights beat host Cloverdale in the other semifinal game, 36-31.
“We didn’t underestimate them at all. We needed to pick up the intensity on defense, playing swarming defense,” said Hoopa Valley’s Charlie Moon, who led all scorers with 24 points.
What the Saints gave up in speed and size they made up for with steady defense and determined rebounding.
“Our strength is our heart. They’re a very good team, but we stayed with them,” said Joey Brink, the Saints’ sparkplug guard.
The John McMillan Holiday Invitational Tournament brings together some top small school teams in the North Coast Section and this matchup was entertaining.
While the Warriors appeared poised to run St. Helena out of the gym in the first quarter, the Saints answered every double-digit deficit with inspired play the rest of the way.
“We knew what to expect. Our kids played hard,” said St. Helena coach Tom Hoppe.
A section power in past seasons, including several state playoff berths, Hoopa Valley values speed, the three pointer — they take more 3s than layups — and relentless defensive pressure. “We just like to run. When the game is chaotic, that’s when we’re at our best,” said Hoopa Valley coach Joseph Marshall.
The calm in that storm is Moon. The lefty with the smooth stroke scored 21 of his points in the first half, including five 3-pointers, sliding into gaps for open shots. While he cooled off considerably, scoring only three points in the second half, Moon kept firing when not finding open teammates.
“Shooters shoot. You don’t let it get in your head,” Moon said.
Nearly matching Moon was Brink, an off guard playing point due to injury. The smallest player on the floor, Brink moves at a frenetic, yet controlled pace that keeps a step or two ahead of defenders. He scored 17 with a combination of fast breaks, tear drop drives, and three pointers.
“We have to play smarter than the other team,” Brink said. “We’re coming together.”
St. Helena had the game’s first two scores. Hoopa Valley answered with a 9-0 run and never trailed again.
A strong driving basket by Brandon Colegrove gave Hoopa Valley a 14-point lead in the second quarter. The most athletic player on the court also hit several three pointers to finish with 17 on the night.
Gritty rebounding and tighter defense in passing lanes helped St. Helena close the gap with a 10-0 run. An anchor down low was Jonny Wignall, strong on the boards and with jump shots in traffic.
But the Warriors gained breathing room with Moon hitting a half-court shot just ahead of the first half buzzer.
Colegrove had the hot hand in the third quarter to help Hoopa Valley regain a 14-point lead. St. Helena followed with seven straight, playing mostly steady as the Warriors pushed the pace.
Working their lead back to double digits, Hoopa Valley went up a dozen on a Moon three pointer. Showing no quit, St. Helena narrowed the game to 60-54, the last score on a rebound and fast break from Wignall.
Hoopa Valley put away the game with a finishing 12-0 run led by Milton Stewart, a power forward who gets out on breaks from the low post and shoots well from outside. Stewart scored 11 in the contest.
Fitness is Hoopa Valley’s strength, with practices much like games. If the Warriors can rebound better, they could make a deep section playoff run.
Winning a section playoff is St. Helena’s goal. To get there, the Saints need smoother playmaking in a motion offense that demands discipline, something the team’s many football players understand.