KEZAR PAVILION — Twenty minutes before his team tipped off in the CIF Division III NorCal championship game on Tuesday night, University Red Devils head coach Randy Bessolo admitted to feeling some nerves.
“Man, I got those butterflies,” he said as he watched his team warm up.
For Bessolo, those nerves would remain all game as his team survived a late-game comeback bid to secure a 44-41 win over the Monterey Toreadores at Kezar Pavilion. With the win, the Red Devils advance to the CIF state finals for the second time under Bessolo, and first since 2015.
“I always tell the guys ‘You won’t understand it ‘til you experience it,’” Bessolo said. “What people don’t understand is the double pressure: the pressure of the defense and the pressure of the moment … Fortunately, we had the cushion of the lead and we had enough to win the ball game.”
In the first half, University looked to carry some of the same nervousness as their coach. Within the first four minutes of the game, the Red Devils turned the ball over four times. University was also trigger happy from the perimeter early on, taking several three-point shots early in the shot clock. They would go 0-for-5 from beyond the arc to start the game.
“A lot of these games are like a prize fight; jab, jab jab,” Bessolo said. “It took us a little while to figure it out and measure them.”
The Red Devils, though, were able to mitigate their turnovers, allowing Monterey to score only two points off the four miscues and holding the Toreadores to only 12 points in the first half.
“I think this was out best defensive game of the year,” Bessolo said. “We played defense all 32 minutes but I think the first half really set the tone.”
Seniors Charley Moore and Max Fried took on most of the responsibility of scoring, finishing the game with 15 and 14 points respectively.
Moore, who opened the first quarter with a pirouette in the paint to glide to the basket, controlled the paint snagging two offensive boards in the first half.
Fried drew most of Monterey’s attention defensively, and despite often drawing double teams on the baseline, he still managed to pace University with seven first half points.
“This time of the year is senior time,” Bessolo said. “Both senior captains are captains because they’re leaders. They were being great leaders out there tonight leading by example.”
After closing the second quarter on an 8-1 run, University carried a nine-point lead into the locker room.
Coming out of the break, Moore helped the Red Devils pick up right where they left off by knocking down what looked to be a momentum-clutching three at the top of the arc.
Unaffected by the the shot, however, Monterey proceeded to trade blows with University for the remainder of the quarter before heading into the fourth trailing 30-21.
To open the fourth and final quarter, Red Devils forward Charlie Kennedy opened the fourth with a pair of corner jumpers to grow the lead to 15.
“We call him ‘Clutch Kennedy,’” Moore said. “C.K. those are his initials.”
After those two shots, the Toreadores reached desperation mode and deployed a full-court press on University.
Forcing four more turnovers in the final three minutes of the game, Monterey roared back to make it a two-point game with under a minute-and-a-half remaining, led by Tahjae Ordonio, who scored seven straight for the Toreadores.
“Coming into this game, we knew that [Monterey] had been down in their last two games and they came back,” Moore said. “To their credit, they were down, they kept their heads down and they came back.”
With 50 seconds remaining, Fried would drain a floater in lane to put the Red Devils up by five, but after a slew of split free throws — including two by University guard Christian Heng with 7.8 seconds to play — Monterey was given one more chance to tie the game at 44. It wouldn’t be until Toreadores guard Mohammed Adam clanked the potential game-tying three off of the right side of the rim that Bessolo knew it was over.
As Fried hauled in the rebound, the clock expired and the University crowd rushed the court as the school celebrated its second state title game berth in the Bessolo era.
“We came to coach’s first state championship game [in eighth grade],” Fried said. “For us to get back there again, especially in our senior year, it means the world and I’m just happy we’re here.”
As for those butterflies, Bessolo thinks that they’ll be back sooner rather than later, as his team prepares for a finals matchup against the La Jolla Country Day Torreys on Friday.
“Pretty soon,” the head coach said. “Definitely some time tonight.”