For No. 11 O’Dea High School, patience proved to be worth a premium.
The Fighting Irish marched to the Class 3A state championship game by defeating Eastside Catholic, 49-41, in Friday night’s semifinals at the Tacoma Dome, in a game that fluctuated from bursts of rim-rattling action to long, free-throw-induced slogs — and required both versatility and mental toughness to survive.
“I think it’s a testament to our league,” O’Dea assistant coach Lee Adams said. Fighting Irish coach Jason Kerr declined interviews.
“I think we have a lot of different styles in our league that play at a pretty high level, and so we’ve seen a lot of it and we can kind of pick whatever the game plan dictates … and switch that up, too.”
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One constant for the Fighting Irish proved to be the steady play and leadership of Paolo Banchero, who scored a game-high 22 points, grabbed 8 rebounds, and was a perfect 11 for 11 from the free throw line.
However, Banchero pointed to his team’s play on the other end of the court as the game’s defining feature.
“Coming into this tournament, we know that defense was going to win championships, and that’s what we focused on today,” he said. “It was a defensive battle, and we knew if we just stopped them we’d be able to come out on top.”
The game started out evenly matched, with Eastside Catholic taking a 8-6 lead as both teams felt out the other’s defensive scheme — the Fighting Irish a physical man-to-man, the Crusaders a switch-everything hybrid.
Then, O’Dea found a spark off the bench in Paul Johnson.
The reserve guard subbed in toward the end of the first quarter, immediately grabbing an offensive rebound and swishing a jumper to knot the game at 8-all. Then, he sank a 3-pointer on the next possession to give O’Dea a 11-8 lead. Finally, he took a charge on Eastside Catholic’s final possession to wrap up the period. Johnson went on to finish the night with 10 points.
“Paul Johnson has been money in the tournament,” Banchero said. “He was money in the regional game … first-round game he hit five 3’s, today he hit two big ones and a pull-up jumper, so he’s really stepped up and got confident.”
A turnover-prone second quarter stayed mostly level, with the Irish clinging to a 15-13 lead with just over two minutes remaining in the half.
Then Banchero, playing more of an auxiliary role for much of the first half, came to life.
He buried a turn-around jumper in the lane, then dunked in transition off a steal with 1:48 left. The O’Dea lead continued to balloon as he went 4 of 4 from the free throw line to close out the second quarter and send the Fighting Irish into the half with a 23-15 lead.
“I don’t ever get stressed out, trying to force it. I knew it would come to me eventually, so I was just being patient,” Banchero said.
That patience came in handy after the break. The third quarter was marred with plenty of whistles and free throws, allowing Eastside Catholic to climb back into the game.
As the fourth quarter began, the Crusaders had cut the Irish lead to 28-25 and had all the momentum.
“In the third (quarter) both teams came out, we just kind of tried to figure out what adjustments each team was going to make,” Banchero said. “We were just trying to figure out what they would do, and it was pretty slow but we just had to keep defending and run our sets.”
The mental toughness paid off.
O’Dea flipped the switch on offense and took the ball inside, getting free throws of their own and some tough buckets to build out the lead once again.
Jermaine Davis got a huge tip-in to push the advantage to 34-29, and then Banchero decided to leave his mark on the game.
With 3:14 remaining, the sophomore grabbed a steal and took the ball the other way, stopping on a dime for a step-back jumper that swished though to give O’Dea a 36-29 lead. Order restored.
The Irish cruised for the rest of the game, settling into a free throw parade for over the final minute before savoring the team’s second title game berth in four years.
“I think we were doubted all year, people didn’t take us seriously because we lost a few games where I was injured, Noah (Williams) was injured, John (Christofilis) was injured, so no one really got to see us at full strength,” Banchero said.
“We still aren’t at full strength, but we’re definitely coming together and I think we’re letting people know we were for real the whole time.”
Nolan Hickman lead the Crusaders with 15 points. J.T. Tuimoloau contributed eight points and six rebounds, and Griffin Barker chipped in eight points and seven rebounds.
O’Dea, the 2016 state runner-up, will face Mount Spokane for the state championship at 5 p.m. Saturday.
“It’s meaningful. That’s been my goal since I was a little kid,” Banchero said.” I’ve been coming to the Tacoma Dome since I was 5 years old. My mom used to coach and I’d come to watch and always stay for the state championship game.
“I always imagined myself being out here, so the fact that I get to play in it is special.”
NO. 11 O’DEA
NO. 1 EASTSIDE CATHOLIC
O – Shooting: 13 for 34 (38.2 percent). Free throws: 20 for 27 (74). Turnovers: 14.
EC – Shooting: 16 for 47 (34 percent). Free throws: 8 for 16 (50). Turnovers: 10.
O – John Misel, 3 points. Paolo Banchero 22, Dezjay Perkins 2, Jermaine Davis 2, Noah Williams 10, Paul Johnson 10.
EC – Shane Nowell, 7 points, Nolan Hickman 15, J.T. Tuimoloau 8, Griffin Barker 8, Chika Nduka 3.