By PHIL BARBER
The Press Democrat
The Dublin Gaels entered their North Coast Section Division 2 semifinal playoff game scoring 70.6 points per game, on average.
Wednesday night, the Gaels found out Montgomery’s defense is not average.
The Vikings locked up a 61-49 home win, holding Dublin to its lowest point total of the season, and will play El Cerrito for the D2 section title Saturday night at St. Mary’s College in Moraga.
Montgomery is hunting its sixth NCS championship, its fifth under coach Tom Fitchie and its first since 2011.
“We don’t get this opportunity very often,” said senior point guard Michael Septimo, who scored 19 points for the Vikings. “Very honored that we were able to get this far. No one was expecting us to come this far. Graduated five seniors, our starting lineup from last year. I’m just really glad we’re here.”
Monty was four points down for much of the first quarter, but ended the period on a 6-0 run, holding Dublin scoreless over the final three minutes to take a 14-12 lead into the second quarter. The Gaels would never lead again. They did fight back to tie the score 20-20 with 2:06 left before halftime, but the Vikings ended the second quarter just like the first, with a 6-0 push.
As always, the defensive end was the key for Montgomery, which has won 12 of its past 13 games.
“Our plan was to change our tempo,” Septimo said. “We did not want to go up and down, that’s their game. We wanted to slow it down, and that was to our advantage.”
The Vikings successfully slowed the pace, and the points came hard for Dublin. The Gaels run a dribble-drive offense, with a trio of guards penetrating and kicking back out to open men.
“We used to run that a couple years ago when we had (Zack) Templeton and (Alec) Kobre and those guys,” Fitchie said. “It’s a great offense if you’ve got perimeter shooters and guys that can get to the hole. And it’s very, very hard to guard. And it’s very simple to run.”
Dublin showed its long-range prowess by hitting seven 3-pointers in the game, but several came after Montgomery had pushed the lead to double digits. Mostly the Gaels struggled from outside, especially swingman Bryce Knox, a top scorer who found the going tough against the Vikings’ Jack Fitchie, the coach’s son.
The big difference was inside, where 6-11 Erik Poulsen controlled the lane for Monty. The Gaels never stopped attacking Poulsen, but their shots became increasingly wild as he got blocks and changed shooting angles.
“We’re one of the top defensive teams, I think, in Northern California,” Poulsen said. “I think that (Dublin) averages like in the 70s. So to keep them in the 40s range really showed how good we are. We’re gonna keep getting better scoring the ball, but we’re always gonna be mainly about our defense.”
Poulsen led all scorers with 24 points, including eight in the fourth quarter. He has a repertoire of turnaround and spin moves, and is reliable out to about 14 feet.
“He’s 6-11, but he can also shoot the ball,” Tom Fitchie said. “He’s got a nice, soft touch. It would be one thing to be 6-11 and not be able to shoot. He’s not necessarily a back-to-the-basket guy, where he’s doing up-and-unders and drop steps and all those power moves. He’s a more of 6-11 and pivot-and-shoot and dribble.”
Poulsen scored on an offensive putback just before the first-quarter buzzer sounded, giving the Vikings their first lead of the game at 14-12. It was 26-20 at halftime, and Montgomery changed the game by going on a 15-2 run to start the second half, with Poulsen, Septimo and Jack Fitchie scoring all the points.
After Septimo hit a pair of free throws to put the Vikings up 41-22, though, the home team revealed its one major vulnerability.
Dublin went to a full-court press, and Monty had a heck of a time getting the ball over the halfcourt line in 10 seconds. Turning up the pressure, the Gaels finished the third quarter on a 10-3 run; only a 3-point shot by Septimo from the left corner prevented real disaster.
The Vikings entered the fourth quarter up 44-32 and were happy to trade baskets with the visitors after that. Dublin eventually cut its deficit to eight points, 57-49, on consecutive 3-pointers by Knox and sweet-shooting Tim Falls. But less than a minute remained at that point, and Paulsen sewed up the win by hitting four free throws in the final 33 seconds.
As a team, Montgomery showed its poise by canning 13 of 16 free throws in the final quarter.
Jack Fitchie added seven points for the Vikings (21-10), and senior forward Matt Hyman had six. Point guard Kobe Toney led Dublin (18-11) with 15 points, and Falls chipped in with 12.
Both teams will advance to the CIF NorCal playoffs. The Vikings would much rather do so as section champions.
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.