Underdog University relishes role in state title game 

click to enlarge Senior guard Brian Palmigiano and University will play for the Division V state championship today at noon at Haas Pavilion in Berkeley. - ERIC SUN/S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • Eric Sun/S.F. Examiner file photo
  • Senior guard Brian Palmigiano and University will play for the Division V state championship today at noon at Haas Pavilion in Berkeley.

After years of near-misses in the Northern California playoffs, the University High School boys' basketball team finally broke through last weekend by capturing the Division V crown with a 65-50 victory over Brookside Christian of Stockton, making this year's squad the first to advance to the state title game during coach Randy Bessolo's highly successful tenure at the school.

Their reward for finally making it over the hump? A meeting with Sierra Canyon (25-4) of Chatsworth, a nationally ranked team featuring one of the top sophomores in the country and three other players being recruited by top Division I programs.

Some prize.

Despite the daunting task ahead of them, the Red Devils (28-7) refuse to cower. This is a team that has compiled 28 wins this season against a difficult schedule and racked up 99 wins over the past four years.

"We're ecstatic to be here and it's a huge achievement to make it to the state title game," said Bessolo whose team will play at Cal's Haas Pavilion today at noon. "We know how good Sierra Canyon is — we're going into this game with our eyes wide open. But we relish this opportunity. To be the best, you have to beat the best."

Sierra Canyon, buoyed by 6-foot-8, 240-pound sophomore center Cody Riley, who has already received offers from schools like Kansas, UCLA and Connecticut, appeared destined to compete in California's Open Division playoffs this postseason, but the Trailblazers were upset in the Southern Section, dropping them down to the Division V competition. They have steamrolled their opponents so far, including a 70-44 shellacking of Price of Los Angeles in the Southern California final.

Along with Riley, the Trailblazers have high-flying sophomore guard Remy Martin and junior point guard Devearl Ramsey, both of whom are being recruited by Pac-12 Conference schools. Sophomore swingman Adam Seiko is also getting interest from Division I schools. That quartet of underclassmen combine to average more than 50 points a game for the Trailblazers.

Even though his team faces size and athleticism disadvantages, Bessolo has no intention of slowing the pace of the game. The Red Devils, who boast five double-digit scorers led by senior guard Brandon Lew, will continue to play the up-tempo, pressure-heavy style of play that has been so successful for them this season.

"We got this far doing what we've been doing, so we're not going to change now," Bessolo said. "If we're going to go down, we're going down the way we've played all year."

With four players — Lew, juniors Mattie Mrlik and Sean Gilmore, and senior Brian Palmigiano — who are all skilled ballhandlers, University will likely spread the court on offense to open up drive-and-dish opportunities. Naod Sebhatleab, a 6-foot-4 senior with soft hands and deft footwork, provides an inside presence that University has lacked in the past.

While the Red Devils will certainly be viewed as the underdogs — Maxpreps.com has Sierra Canyon ranked 20th in the nation — University does have a couple of things in its favor. The Red Devils are coming off perhaps their most complete victory of the season, and with the game in Berkeley (normally state title games are held in Sacramento) as the California Interscholastic Federation celebrates the state finals' 100th anniversary, University will be playing just a short trip away from San Francisco.

Today's classes at the school were canceled to make sure as many University students as possible make the trip across San Francisco Bay.

"We're expecting a really strong showing from our student body the University community as a whole," Bessolo said. "Which is nice, since we'll take any help we can get."

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Will Reisman

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