SANTA CLARA — The West Catholic Athletic League basketball All-League Team came out on Friday, and Sacred Heart Cathedral didn’t have a single first-teamer. Six-foot-eight center Oscar Cheng didn’t even receive an honorable mention.
On Friday, though, Cheng put on an all-world performance with 14 points and nine rebounds — all on the offensive end — as the Fightin’ Irish completed a stunning run to the Central Coast Section Open Division championship, beating the Bellarmine Bells 50-48 at the Leavey Center on the campus of Santa Clara University.
Junior Kori McCoy hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:12 left as the eighth-seeded Irish won their first Open Division title in program history and became the first team outside of the top three seeds to win the tournament since its inception in 2013.
Cheng and Oisin McCormack paced Sacred Heart Cathedral (13-14) through the first three quarters by dominating the offensive glass, then turned things over to the guards after third-seeded Bellarmine took the lead early in the fourth on an 8-0 run.
The Irish opened up a 38-33 lead with two-and-a-half minutes left in the third quarter, but saw Bellarmine (20-7) tie the game on five points by Quinn Denker to close the period, then take the lead on a Ridley Ruth 3-pointer to start the fourth.
A McCormack layup and a baseline jumper by freshman Ray John Jackson put the Irish back in front before Kiran Kruse, who finished second in league MVP voting, cut the the hoop to give the Bells a 43-42 lead.
It was Kruse’s lone field goal of the night, as he was held to 1-for-8 shooting and just three points by Elijah Flowers.
“They kept high energy on me tonight,” Kruse said. “Hats off to them, they played hard and earned this win.”
Flowers’ evolution as Sacred Heart Cathedral’s top defender has been a huge part of the team’s recent rise. He scored just two points on Friday night, but had four assists, two steals and a block while silencing Kruse for most of the night.
“I wasn’t worried about scoring or any of that,” Flowers said. “My assignment was to shut him down, and that’s what I wanted to do for the whole game. Everybody on the team can score, so my job is to go out there and play great defense, grab rebounds and do all the scrappy stuff.”
The Irish went scoreless over a three-minute stretch after Jackson’s basket, but the Bells were unable to create separation in that span, going up three on a layup by Ian Elam (11 points) off an inbound pass with 3:35 left. Sacred Heart Cathedral responded with an inbound play of its own, getting Cedric Reed Jr. open in the corner for the game-tying 3-pointer with 3:07 left, the last of his 10 points on the night.
Denker missed a wide-open layup under the hoop with just over two minutes left, and after the last of Cheng’s offensive rebounds, McCoy hit the go-ahead three.
Cheng would score on a fast break against the Bellarmine press with 20 seconds left, but the Bells wouldn’t go away, as Denker hit a deep three for the last of his game-high 21 points.
Bellarmine head coach Patrick Schneider took his final timeout with 17.1 seconds left, and with three fouls to give, the next few minutes turned into a massive scramble.
Reed got trapped in the corner on the ensuing play but managed to call timeout in front of a Bells bench that was pleading for him to be called for either a travel or stepping out of bounds. McCoy was fouled just before throwing an errant pass out of bounds, and a chance at a game-sealing layup for Flowers was whistled down by another foul behind the play.
Another inbound nearly went out off of Reed but was ruled to have gone off the Bells, and McCoy finally went to the line with 4.5 seconds left. He’d miss the front end of a 1-and-1, but Jackson was able to poke the ball loose from Josh Wolf-Bloom and direct it back to McCoy, who was fouled again. Once more, he missed, but Jackson was able to deflect the ball as time expired and capped off a championship that would have been unthinkable just a week ago.
“We rely on each other,” Jackson said. “It’s all about leadership, courage and trusting each other.”
The prior six CCS Open Division champions have all gone on to the Northern California Open Division, but with a sub-.500 overall record, including 3-11 in WCAL play during the regular season, the Irish aren’t a shoo-in.
“There’s no reason we shouldn’t be in Open,” Cheng said. “We feel like we can play with anybody. Whatever happens, we’ll be ready.”
Considering that they won Friday night despite shooting just 20-of-56 and making four of 15 3-point attempts, beating a Bellarmine team known for its interior defense with a 17-9 advantage on the offensive glass, the Irish may very well be able to play with anybody. An Open Division berth could mean a Wednesday night matchup with undefeated Salesian.