The Tino boys varsity basketball team’s journey to the CCS Division I crown continued Saturday afternoon in a tight to-the-wire game against the heavily favored Palo Alto Vikings.
The Vikings, an upper-league team, entered the game with only 3 players under 6’ tall and were able to jump out to a quick 7-3 lead as the Pioneers struggled to keep pace with their much larger opponents. Tino struck back quickly however, as Ajaypal Singh made a long two-point jumper with a hand in his face. A steal and backdoor pass by Senior guard Ethan Shen led to another Singh basket, and a third straight basket from the senior forward brought the score to an even 9-9.
Paly responded to the run with two straight three-pointers and a layup, taking the lead once again. A spot up jumper from sophomore George Ellegood – his first of many – and a Singh layup, however, brought the score to a manageable 17-13 at the end of the first quarter.
The Vikings got the ball to start the second and immediately gave it away to a traveling violation. The turnover proved costly, as Shen hit a big three to pull within one. Palo Alto was able to go on a small run with two straight shots, but this quarter belonged to the Pioneers. They went on an incredible 14-0 run, one that included three blocks and two Ellegood free throws. The run was highlighted by a spectacular play by Singh, as he blocked a shot, stole the ball, and finished with a contested layup on the breakaway.
Senior Annika Taheri, like the other fans watching the game from the stands, enjoyed seeing the team gain a rhythm and play to their full capacity. “The boys were incredibly exciting to watch. As the underdogs, it was super fun to see them gain confidence throughout the game and play so well against such a good team,” Taheri said.
Ellegood hit a fadeaway three on the next possession, and the Tino lead grew to 21-30. Palo Alto was able to stop the bleeding with a layup, but were outscored 17-6 in the quarter and entered halftime down 7 points, 23-30.
After a disappointing third quarter in their previous game against Silver Creek, the Pioneers were determined to come out with more energy this time. Palo Alto drew first blood with a post move in the lane, but Tino responded with a long Singh jumper to push the lead back to 7.
Tino’s tenacious defense resulted in a Shen steal on the next possession, and the effort proved fruitful when it led to an open three by junior Koshi Hyunh. The shot would be his only one of the game, but it was a big one, because Palo Alto answered with three consecutive three-pointers to cut the Tino lead to only one point.
With the score sitting at 34-35, Shen hit two corner threes to give the Pioneers a cushion once again. The Pioneers then made a play that was equal parts chaotic and impressive, as Singh blocked a shot and missed a dunk. Luckily, sophomore Meelad Danai was there to grab the rebound and kick the ball out to Ellegood for a big three in the corner. Palo Alto hit another three, and the score at the start of the final quarter sat at 39-44.
A Singh jumper opened the scoring, but the Vikings responded with a quick post move on the following possession. The Palo Alto press defense backfired as one of their players whiffed on a pass and left Ellegood open in the corner for yet another three-pointer. The Vikings answered with a three, and this began a three-minute long defensive period where neither team scored.
The momentary lapse in scoring ended when Palo Alto connected on another three and cut the Tino lead to just two points. Ajaypal Singh responded with another long jumper from the wing, but another three from Paly cut their deficit to just one point.
The Vikings threatened to take the lead on a breakaway, but Singh invited the entire city of Palo Alto to his block party when he viciously swatted away a layup attempt for his second block of the game. The Pioneers advanced the ball into the front court and called timeout with a 51-50 lead and 39 seconds left on the clock.
At the most pivotal part of the game, the crowd was forced to sit and wait for play to resume. Said Taheri, “The game was super nerve-racking. I was trying to send updates to people who couldn't make it to the game, but my heart was pumping so fast and my hands were shaking so much that every picture I tried to take came out blurry.”
The Pioneers needed a big play to put away their opponent, and they got that big play when George Ellegood hit a huge corner three, his sixth of the game, with 19 seconds to go. The Vikings quickly inbounded the ball, hoping to respond, but Ellegood came up big again as he stole the ball at midcourt and drew a foul.
Said Ellegood, “The ball was just kicked to me and I had been shooting well all night, so I shot it right away. And then going back on D, I just read their player’s eyes, saw where he was going, and I was able to get my hands on it.”
The crowd exploded, the team ran out onto the court to celebrate their impending win, and Palo Alto just looked deflated. With three fouls to give, the Vikings couldn’t put Tino’s players on the line. The last 15 seconds of the game stretched out for a few minutes, as the Pioneers were forced to inbound the ball three separate times. The Vikings were able to steal the ball on the last inbound and put up a prayer three, but it was well short, the Pioneers were already on their way to the semi-finals.
Final score: Cupertino 54, Palo Alto 50.
Led by fantastic efforts from Ellegood (6-8 3-pt, 22 points, 4 rebounds), Singh (10-18 FG, 21 points, 2 blk, 5 reb, 3 stl), and Shen (8 points, 3 reb, 3 ast), Tino was forced to battle back from a deficit, overcome a size disadvantage, and come up with a big play at the end to pull out a win. Now, the Pioneers will move on to the CCS semi-finals to face the first-seeded Piedmont Hills Pirates. The game will be held at 5:30 pm on Wednesday at Fremont High school. The winner will go on to face the winner of Wilcox-Oak Grove in the CCS Division I final.
Images Courtesy of Ching Hsin Wong.