SAN JOSE — At four in the morning on Sunday, Sacred Heart Cathedral junior guard Kori McCoy awoke to his father telling him that his uncle, 20-year old Willie McCoy, had been fatally shot by police.
As his teammates walked past him coming out of the locker room, they said, “There’s an angel watching over you.” Kori McCoy described Willie — known by his rapper name, Willie Bo — as a brother.
“I didn’t see [Willie] a lot when I was younger; he was in group homes, foster homes, all that,” McCoy said. “He had a rough life, but as I got older, I started seeing him a lot, and he always looked out for me, made sure I had money in my pocket. He was my protector.”
Against No. 1-seed Archbishop Mitty in the first round of the Central Coast Section Open Division playoffs, a team that they’d seen engineer a second-half comeback first-hand, McCoy, playing in his uncle’s honor, helped fuel a two-minute stretch in the third quarter that parried the Monarchs’ advance. It was that stretch that led to arguably the biggest win in recent program history — a 69-65 No. 8-vs.-No. 1 upset.
“I don’t know the whole history of the school, but being a bottom feeder for the last two years, this is probably one of the biggest upsets in school history,” said head coach Sean MacKay. “I’m just proud of the boys. They’ve gone through so much, especially this senior class.”
In their first meeting with Mitty, the Irish (11-14, 3-11 in WCAL) had shot out to an early 20-16 lead and at one point led by as many as 11. They saw the Monarchs take a 33-31 lead at the half, and battled back to take a 49-48 lead after three quarters. Sacred Heart Cathedral, though, was outscored 21-16 in the final quarter. It was one of four double-digit comebacks by Mitty on the season. In their next meeting, the Monarchs blasted the Irish 82-54.
The last three seasons, Sacred Heart Cathedral has fallen short in the Division III CCS playoffs. Last season, seeded No. 1, they lost to No. 4-seed Monterey in the semifinals, 73-68. The year before, again the No. 1 seed, the Irish lost to No. 8 seed Gunderson after a first-round bye, 77-58. The year before that, they lost in the DIII title game to Riordan.
“We’ve just been playing with a chip on our shoulder,” McCoy said. “It’s an us-against-the-world mentality. We’re going out in these playoffs trying to make a name for ourselves, and we go out there every game, we’ve got nothing to lose.”
Sacred Heart Cathedral played neck-and-neck with Mitty — which won the West Catholic Athletic League regular-season title — and trailed just 34-32 at the half.
Mitty, though, was armed with scoring machine Devan Sapp, sophomore Michael Mitchell and hard-charging Joseph Vaughn, with Sapp and Vaughn combining for just seven points in the first quarter.
Up 42-40 after a stop-and-pop jumper by Mitchell, McCoy nailed a three with 3:18 to go, and then swiped a steal and pushed it up to Cedric Reed Jr. for a bucket. McCoy picked up a defensive rebound off a Jacob Ryan miss, drove to the hoop and drew a foul. He hit both of his free throws, giving the Irish a 10-point lead with 1:55 to go in the quarter.
“They were in foul trouble in the second half, and it kind of threw them off,” MacKay said. “Their rotations were inconsistent, and their two best scorers out there on the perimeter were in foul trouble, so I think they were just trying to hold it together.”
That stretch proved to be a turning point for Sacred Heart Cathedral. Freshman Ray John Jackson — who iced the game with a pair of free throws with less than 20 seconds to go — kept the line moving with a three of his own after McCoy’s flurry to up the lead to 55-42.
Jackson would finish with 13 points, and senior Reed with 15, with all but two coming in the first half.
“First half, I felt like I was being aggressive,” Reed said. “I was getting to the open lanes, getting fouled and getting free throws. Second half, sometimes, you’ve got to take a step back and let everybody else do it. We had a freshman step up, so if he’s got to step up for us to win, I’ll take a step back. Him, Kori, Oscar [Cheng], Oisin, Elijah [Flowers], whatever we’ve got to do to win.”
Not to be outdone was senior and former soccer player Oisin McCormack, who scored 15 points, knocking down eight of nine free throws. Cheng scored all six of his points in the third quarter, while McCoy scored seven of his points in the period and Flowers scored five of his team-high 17.
“For our seniors, this means everything,” McCoy said. “This is their first open run. We wanted to make it special for them. We’re not trying to lay down and go to D3. We’re trying to go to state and make some noise.”
“We haven’t been in a position like this,” MacKay said. “This is something new for us.”
The Irish now face Menlo-Atherton, which upset Serra at Fremont High School, in the semifinals. That game will take place on Feb. 20.
“Not at all, not at all,” MacKay said, when asked how familiar he is with the Bears. “Now, I’ve got to track down more film on them.”
The Irish held Sapp to 20 points, while Vaughn scored 15 and Marcus Greene 10.
The emotional heart of the win, though, was McCoy, who finished with 12 points, three steals and a rebound, and whose voice cracked after the game as he remembered his uncle.
“I just had to turn up for my uncle,” he said. “We’ve been grieving, just trying to get through it. I’m dedicating this to him. I know he’s watching over me.”
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