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October 25, 2021

Despite loss, Oakwood still has plenty to be excited about

On the inbound play to start the second half, Owen McCarry came up with a steal before dribbling the length of the floor and making a nifty behind the back pass to Duncan Ellis, who scored an uncontested layup. The play summed up Christopher High’s 67-41 win over Oakwood on Thursday. 

The Cougars swarmed, harassed and made life miserable for the Hawks, who trailed 15-4 after the opening quarter and never got closer the rest of the way. Christopher (6-0) was coming off a three-point win over San Benito that was characterized by a lack of focus and a state of overconfidence. Cougars coach Tim Von Urff said his players got a little too comfortable after winning their first four games in blowout fashion. Von Urff wanted to see a 180 degree turnaround, and he got it. 

“The boys were phenomenal,” he said. “That (San Benito) game, that was them being immature. They win a couple of games and you think they’ll all be easy. I’m happy they worked hard to bounce back from that.”

Twelve different players scored for Christopher, as Von Urff rotated players and substituted liberally, a luxury of having a deep and talented roster. Sophomore guard Chigozie “Chico” Okeke scored 15 points, Duncan Ellis had 12, Tobenna Ezeokeke had 10 and McCarry finished with nine. 

Von Urff said Okeke moves well with and without the ball and is tough defensively. Against Oakwood, he scored in a variety of ways, displaying tremendous growth from last season when he was on the junior varsity squad. The Cougars are big, physical and long, and they were relentless in their defensive pressure and rebounding. 

“I’m not a mean guy, but we try to make our opponents feel a certain way after a game in which they say, ‘Damn, I didn’t get a chance to do anything because they were in my face all night,’” Von Urff said.

Oakwood had just six players in uniform and was without the services of its best player, coach Kort Jensen said. But Jensen added it wouldn’t have made a difference as he was effusive in his praise for Christopher.

“We could’ve put 20 kids on the floor at the same time and they still would’ve whipped us,” Jensen said. “They’re just better than us. They’re well coached, their kids played with hunger, they’re skilled, they’re tough, and they just wanted it more. It was a good lesson for our boys to see the difference of playing basketball for fun and playing basketball like you really need to win. As someone who loves basketball, I thoroughly enjoy watching kids play that hard. I don’t care what you do in life—do it with passion. And they played with passion. We didn’t play with any passion; we just played, and there is a big difference as you could see.”

Despite the loss, the Hawks are still 6-2 and have been playing solid basketball this season. Jensen decided to purposely schedule A-league teams in preparation for next season, when the core nucleus returns. That includes 6-foot-5 wing Roman Moskalenko and 6-6 post Sandro Kokochasvili, along with an influx of talent that should make an immediate impact.

“We’ll be really good next season,” Jensen said. “Now when I say really good, the question is will we have the same fight and passion that Christopher had tonight. That’s something we’ll talk about.”

Moskalenko, who is averaging 18 points per game, plays for West Coast Elite and had some nice moments, but Christopher’s team defense made things difficult for every Oakwood ball-handler. 

“Roman showed up to fight; he just didn’t get any help,” Jensen said. “A couple of our kids showed up and fought back, but man, Christopher just keeps coming at you in waves. They’re really a blast to watch.”

Moskalenko had 13 points, while Aaron Firpo and Vlad Zaitsau had eight each. Jensen said Firpo played well at times and was one of the few Oakwood players who had flashes of success in getting to the basket off dribble penetration. 

Outside of a dominating performance, the best news for Christopher was Ellis—one of the best players in the area—having perhaps his best game of the season. Ellis hit shots from inside, from outside, and looked relaxed in doing it.

“This year it was hard to find my confidence and kind of get in a groove because I kind of stepped away from a scoring first mentality,” he said. “For me, winning is everything so my job is to do whatever it takes to make my teammates better. This game felt good and I came into it with the mindset that I’m just going to let it fly.”

Ellis, who has signed to play for Occidental College, a Division III program in Los Angeles, liked how the team scored a ton of points in the paint. The Cougars have plenty of height and physicality to hurt teams close to the basket with their ferocious rebounding ability. 

“Usually we try to shoot more 3s, but going inside is our strong suit,” Ellis said. “We have a lot of bigs like Chris (Naulls) and E.J. (Yufenyuy) and even Tobenna who can get inside whenever we want.”

Ellis, who had his long-range jumper going, said the team has goals to go undefeated and win the program’s first-ever Central Coast Section championship. 

“Last year after losing (in the CCS title game), that was something that haunts all of us,” he said. “It’s definitely in the back of our minds and something we think about everyday. It’s CCS (championship) or bust. There’s no pressure. We got to the championship before and now we just have to get back there and win it.”

Although the Cougars are playing at a championship level defense, their offense still needs to catch up. They had a flurry of turnovers—over 20 in the game—but in time they’re confident things will go smoother. 

“(That many) turnovers are unacceptable, regardless of what situation it is at any level,” Von Urff said. “We’ve got to clean it up the right way and just make solid decisions because it’s only going to get tougher here on out.”

The Hawks’ Aaron Firpo (8 points) defends an inbounds pass against Christopher. Photo by Jonathan Natividad.
Oakwood’s Roman Moskalenko battles Chris Naulls for a rebound in Thursday’s contest. Photo by Jonathan Natividad.
Emanuel Lee
Sports Editor of the Gilroy Dispatch, Hollister Free Lance and Morgan Hill Times. PR of 3:13.40 at the 2019 CIM. Hebrews 12:1.

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