SACRAMENTO — Moreau Catholic had fought back since the early stages of the season, so it seemed only fitting that the state championship game would be no different.
The Mariners found themselves down 17 points in the first half Saturday against Esperanza-Anaheim and its Stanford-bound star Kezie Okpala before turning to their season-long script.
They scraped and clawed and chipped away at the mountain of a deficit, eventually taking the lead.
But there would be no celebration for Moreau, no championship trophy to bring back to Hayward, as Esperanza returned to Southern California with a 72-65 victory in the Division II final at Golden 1 Center.
“This group of young me, I am proud of,” Moreau coach Frank Knight said. “i want them t always know that. I am proud of the heart and determination that they have, the will to fight, even though the things around them may not go the way it’s supposed to go.
“They have done this all year. We started off the season 2-8, and we ended up in this game.”
Three years after absorbing a nightmare of a state championship game defeat, by 41 points to Bishop Montgomery, Moreau seemed headed in a similar direction as Esperanza soared to a 26-9 advantage in the second quarter.
“I was thinking it was deja vu,” Moreau star Damari Milstead said. “It felt like it was my freshman year. But we fought. We just didn’t play well enough in the beginning. I could have played better. I didn’t shoot the ball well enough. When they put the big kid on me, it rattled me.”
The 6-foot-8 Okpala not only defended Milstead — a 2,300-point scorer in a storied high school career — he also finished with 22 points and 12 rebounds.
“He’s a good player,” said the Grand Canyon University-bound Milstead, who had 22 points. “He’s good on the defensive end. On the offensive end, he got his teammates shots where they wanted to get shots. He chose his spots very well.”
Brendan Harrick led Esperanza with 25 points on 10-of-20 shooting, which included some big 3-pointers from the corner.
Esperanza needed such contributions because this Moreau team was more seasoned than the one when Milstead was a freshman.
Knight put his mostly young players through a meatgrinder of a December schedule, and the BBQing on the scoreboard and in the standings toughened up the Mariners for March.
Led by Milstead and super freshman Kyree Walker, Moreau outlasted Bishop O’Dowd and Tamalpais in the section playoffs, roared back in the final minutes to win at St. Francis in a regional final and then charged back again Saturday.
The Mariners pulled within 34-26 at halftime and kept the heat on to start the third quarter. They frustrated Esperanza with a trapping defense and took a 39-38 lead when Walker, who finished with 28 points and 10 rebounds, drove for a basket.
But Esperanza didn’t go 30-3 for no reason. Okpala scored on a layup to reclaim the advantage, 40-39, and start a 9-0 run that put Esperanza back in control.
Knight acknowledged that it took a lot of energy for his guys to erase such a large deficit.
“I was trying to use every time out I had, with the TV timeouts and stuff, to stretch it out,” he said. “It’s tough when you get down and dig yourself a hole. We told them in the second half we wanted to make a run and try to get the lead, which we did.
“Then at the very, very end, we put the full-court press on them, the same thing we did to St. Francis, and we caused two or three turnovers. We just couldn’t finish. Got to the basket and missed some bunnies. It’s tough to come back when you’re down that much.”
Moreau got as close as two when Walker made two free throws with 54.4 seconds to go, but time ultimately would run out on the Mariners, a painful defeat in more ways than one.
Walker took an elbow to the jaw in the closing seconds, leaving the big guy grimacing and shaken as he tried to walk it off. He later said that he could barely talk.
The outcome ended Moreau’s 20-game winning streak as the Mariners finished the Milstead era 25-10.
“Seven years ago no one in this room knew who Moreau Catholic was,” Knight said. “We’re doing some good things. We’re chipping away. we’re going to keep working and hopefully we’ll be back here in a couple of years.”