KEZAR PAVILION — With three minutes left in the third quarter against Marin Academy on Wednesday, Stuart Hall head coach Charles Johnson had pulled almost all of his starters.
Only one more would be on the floor at any time over the remainder of the quarter: Miles Amos or Alex Byrd.
In the fourth quarter, even those two headed to the bench. They weren’t needed in a 71-37 win over the Wildcats in the BCL West semifinal, a win that sends the Knights to a third date with rival University on Saturday at 4 p.m.
“We had a sense that we weren’t going to be beat tonight,” Johnson said. “It’s funny, we’ve been a slow-starting team last year, and this year, for about half the season, it seems like. We’ve emphasized playing a little faster, and I think that sparked us into being more aggressive, too.”
Stuart Hall went on a 12-0 run to start the game, and never led by less than eight, leading by double digits for the final 25 minutes. In the early goings, it was tenacious defense by both Amos and Byrd — who finished with nine and 10 points, respectively — that set the tone.
“Byrd, that kid is such a stud,” Johnson said. “I think you could make the argument that he’s the heart of our team. For a kid who’s 5-foot-7, he’s tough as nails. I’m glad he’s on my team … Those guys [Amos and Byrd] are ball hawks. Miles just has that ability, he gets to every ball, and tips every ball. He’s an amazing defender, in addition to just being super-explosive. He can flat-out defend.”
Star sophomore Nigel Burris, at 6-foot-6, continued to display the versatility that should make him one of the most prized local prospects, not only deftly navigating the post, but also stepping out to the mid-range and beyond the 3-point arc to pile up 16 points in less than three quarters of play.
“I remember in fifth grade, I used to be a post player, and that’s when I started going to another AAU team, and Bryan Thomasson [founder of Work Hard Play Hard] helped me, as well. My dad helped me with shooting too, just taught me how to be competitive and changed my mindset into being more of a point guard.”
By the end of the first quarter, Stuart Hall was up 17-6, a lead that ballooned to 34-16 at the half, as Spencer O’Brien-Steele tipped in his own miss as part of his 10-point night.
A corner three by Burris — one of his three triples on the evening — with 6:03 to go in the third quarter swelled the lead to 43-13, and a Byrd lay-up on the break pushed that to 45-18.
A long two on the right side by Burris fell short, but he got his own rebound, and then hit a three from the left corner, pointing to teammate Kyle Jasper as he ran back up the court, up 48-20.
“Spencer got a rebound, and Spencer passed it out to Kyle, and Kyle gave it to me,” Burris said. “He was pointing at me, too.”
For much of the evening, the Knights’ Saturday opponents, University, sat in the stands, watching first their own girls’ team lose to Urban, and then for a bit of the final game of the evening. They’d already easily dispatched Lick-Wilmerding, 66-39, led by 15 points from Max Fried and nine points by Charley Moore, who scored seven of those in the first quarter. Moore, a lengthy but streaky shooter, also added five rebounds.
“We’ve had so many games this year that we could have won or lost,” Johnson said. “I think we preach toughness, and we talk about that a lot, not only physical toughness, but mental toughness. We’re thinking in the moment. We’re not thinking about the next game, not thinking about section, not thinking about last year. We’re trying to focus in on that game, that day. I think that message helps.”
The two teams have met twice already this year, with Stuart Hall beating the Red Devils 53-47 in Jan. 8, and beating them again on Jan. 29, 64-59 to clinch the regular-season championship. The trophy for that championship sat on the Knights’ bench on Wednesday.
“It’s a big game, for the tournament championship,” Johnson said. “The league is the regular season, but we’re excited. Every time you get to play University, it’s a good night, and they’re solid. We know it’s going to be a tough game. They’re well coached and they have clutch kids, and we expect it to be a battle.”
The game will be personal. Burris trains with Fried and Moore at Advanced Wellness on Geary, and has known each of them for the past two years.
“Off the court, we’re good friends, but on the court, it’s going to be competitive,” Burris said. “We act like we don’t know each other. We want to kill each other.”