The Academic Athletic Association-S.F. Section boys’ basketball championship tonight won’t be a clash of style as much as it will be a game of matchups and personnel — strength and weaknesses.
Both teams have employed fast-paced offensive and defensive schemes this season, but Lincoln’s strength is based inside — with 6-foot-7 junior center Seth Snoddy and bulky, athletic forward Da’vion Telfor — while fourth-seeded Mission’s resides on the perimeter, with two of the best scoring guards in The City in seniors Kevin Murray and Antoine Porter.
The second-seeded Mustangs’ frontcourt prowess was on full display against Marshall in the AAA semifinals on Wednesday, with Telfor scoring a game-high 28 points and taking in 10 rebounds, and Snoddy adding 20 points and a game-high 17 boards.
The fourth-seeded Bears, which have put up nearly 17 3-point attempts per game this season, have ridden Murray and Porter (who each average 19.9 points per game), but neither was the star in their 80-61 win over top-seeded Galileo in the other AAA semifinal.
Unheralded sophomore guard Joji Kurotani poured in a game-high 28 points for the Bears on Wednesday. He more than tripled his season scoring average prior to that point with a 10-of-14 shooting performance from the field, including a 6-of-8 stretch from 3-point range.
“The key is going to be who is going to handle the disadvantage better,” Mission coach Arnold Zelaya said. “Our style is going to pressure full-court, which will hopefully help with any problems we have in the half-court.”
The Mustangs’ edge inside proved to be the greater force in the teams’ only regular-season meeting, a 69-55 Lincoln win on Mission’s home court in early January. Behind 21 points from Telfor and a double-double from Snoddy, Lincoln scored 34 points in the paint and 27 more at the free-throw line.
“We’ve got big guys that can score, but their guards really have the ability to change the whole momentum of the game,” Lincoln coach Matt Jackson said. “When they want to be, they’re very intense and can hit some shots. The 3-point line is their strength with Antoine and Kevin, and if you compare our twos to their threes — if it comes down to it, we’re going to try to get the ball out of one of those guys’ hands.”
The same two teams, and many of the same players, also took the field in the Turkey Day football championship game between the two schools in the fall. Lincoln came out on top in that game, but the extended football season also impacted the basketball team. Without key players in early-season practices — Telfor and guard Demetrius Williams were both starters on the football team, as well as reserve forward Tyree Marzetta — the Mustangs started the year 0-7.
“When those guys came aboard, Demetrius’ leadership ability coming off the football field and [Telfor’s] athleticism boosted the intensity in practice,” Jackson said. “It was welcome, but it wasn’t immediate the impact. It took us a little while.”
Mission started off even worse, dropping their first eight games of the season by an average margin of 15.9 points. The Bears’ reasons for early struggles were quite different, though.
Porter, a standout quarterback that was named City Football Player of the Year, arrived late, but didn’t miss a game. The true reason for the early-season struggles was a rash of suspensions, injuries and other player departures. Only three players on Mission’s 14-man roster were not suspended at one point in the year and eight players that figured to be on the varsity squad and played during summer league left the team (three quit, two were academically ineligible, two more were kicked off the team by Zelaya and another was injured).
“I stuck to my high standards and I’m not changing that,” said Zelaya, who is also the dean at Mission and picked up his 100th win as a varsity coach Wednesday. “The guys that buy in, and that do what we’re asking them to do are weathering the storm and believe in what we’re doing.”
While Mission and Lincoln have had similar levels of talent in recent years, the Bears have accumulated the most championships (three in five years) and this will be their fourth straight appearance in the league title game. Lincoln, conversely, hasn’t won a AAA title since 2003.
That last championship was well before Mike Gragnani took over the program in 2006, but the former coach, who died of a heart attack early in 2011 during the basketball season, is still on the collective mind of the Lincoln coaching staff and players.
“For us on the coaching staff and for a couple of [players], he’s still heavy in our hearts and we felt we should have been in this game when he passed away,” said Jackson, who took over for Gragnani during that 2011 season. “He will be a big influence on us [Friday] and the Lincoln-Mission game was always a big game for him. He respected Arnold, but he always wanted to beat him. I think Arnold got the best of Mike in his time at Lincoln and we’re going to do the best to end that trend.”