Up four points at intermission after leading higher-seeded Menlo-Atherton for all but the first four minutes of the half, the Los Altos High boys basketball team no longer looked like the underdog in Saturday’s Central Coast Section Division I quarterfinal.
Nor did the Eagles feel like one.
“We knew we were the better team at that point, and we had to show it in that second half,” swingman Matt Eberle said. “We just tried to keep up that defensive pressure and tried to stay calm and patient on offense.”
Sixth-seeded Los Altos did just that, withstanding a third-quarter run by the No. 3 Bears to prevail 56-48 at Piedmont Hills in San Jose. The Eagles (17-9) return to Piedmont Hills tonight to face No. 2 Los Gatos (19-6) in a semifinal game slated to tip off at 7:30 p.m.
The last time Los Altos got this far, starters Nolan Brennan and Simon Heck were freshmen who helped get the team there. That was three years ago, when the Eagles went on to win their first CCS title in the sport.
Brennan believes he knows what it will take to get back to the final.
“We’ve just got to come out and play hard,” said the point guard, who scored 14 points Saturday. “We’ve got to play our style of basketball.”
Los Altos will probably also need to take better care of the ball to upset Los Gatos, which posted a pair of double-digit wins over the Eagles in league play this season. Los Altos survived 20 turnovers Saturday, including 14 in the first half.
“Unfortunately, turnovers have been an issue for us all year,” coach Trevor Naas said. “But our mindset, our mentality, is next play. We’re going to make mistakes, so we’ve got to keep grinding and get on to the next play.”
The Eagles overcame their miscues with solid shooting and defense. They hit 19 of their 35 shots (54 percent), including a 5-of-9 effort from 3-point range. The Bears made just as many field goals but needed 49 attempts to do so. They also committed 16 turnovers, nearly nullifying the number Los Altos made.
“At the beginning of the season, that (many turnovers) would have flustered us and we would have gone down because that’s just how we were,” said Eberle, who scored a team-high 17 points. “But we’ve gotten a lot stronger mentally. Coach preaches next play – that next-play mentality – and we really showed that tonight.”
After scoring the first points of the third quarter on a putback by center Heck, the Eagles went into an offensive rut that helped Menlo-Atherton (16-10) pull ahead. Los Altos committed two turnovers – both unforced – and missed four straight shots over a three-minute span. The Bears, meanwhile, scored 10 straight points to go ahead 31-27 with 4:15 left in the period.
But the Eagles and their all-senior starting lineup didn’t blink. They reclaimed the lead by quarter’s end with an 8-2 run. Jake Shab scored half those points and Brennan the other half, with all eight coming from inside the paint. Brennan’s floater with 46 seconds left put Los Altos up 35-33 to start the fourth.
Shab, who totaled nine points, opened the final period with a successful drive down the middle. The Bears cut their deficit to one with a drive and free throw, but that’s as close as they would get.
Zach Espiritu buried an open 3, set up by Heck’s pass from the post, to push the Eagles’ advantage to 40-36 with 5:43 to play. That ignited a 10-3 spurt that featured a scoop layin by Eberle, a floater by Brennan and a 3-point bank shot from Nemin Htet.
“We had some guys tonight who don’t normally hit 3s hit a couple,” Naas said. “They were good open shots and, thankfully for us, they knocked them down.”
Eberle knocked down eight free throws in the final 2:04 to keep the Bears at a safe distance.