Playing perhaps its most lackluster half of the season, the Oakwood High boys basketball team went into the halftime break trailing by 10 points to the same King City team that it had already lost to twice earlier in the season by a combined margin of five points.
“We couldn’t let this team beat us a third time,” said Andrej Velijkovic, Oakwood’s outstanding junior shooting guard. “We had to win.”
And that’s exactly what the Hawks did, roaring back for a thrilling 57-54 Pacific Coast League Santa Lucia Division victory on Tuesday. Velijkovic had a team-high 19 points, Nikola Djalovic had 16 and Aaron Fripo finished with 11 as Oakwood took a big step toward winning a division championship. With the win, Oakwood improved to 5-1 in division play, ahead of second-place Watsonville and Gonzales, both with 3-2 marks.
A dominating 19-5 third-quarter run propelled the Hawks to an impressive comeback victory, making one wonder what magic words were said in the locker room at halftime.
“We can’t print it,” Oakwood coach Kort Jensen said with a grin.
“I don’t know if I can say,” Velijkovic said with a smile. “That is a secret that will stay behind closed doors.”
There was no doubt the coaches lit a fire under the players’ proverbial butts at halftime, and to the players’ credit, they responded. Oakwood turned a 15-point deficit into a four-point lead entering the fourth quarter, an advantage it never relinquished. A gritty King City team actually opened the third quarter on a mini 5-0 run to build the largest lead of the game, 39-24, with 6 minutes, 10 seconds remaining in the third.
At that point, it looked as if Oakwood was going to get run out of its own gym. Then something clicked. Fripo, a 6-foot-2 sophomore, hit on consecutive shots, a floater in the lane followed by a layup. Fripo displayed great basketball instincts, producing key rebounds, steals and being at the right place at the right time. Djalovic, a 6-9 senior center, hit a baby hook shot from in close before Fripo connected on a 3-pointer to cut the Hawks’ deficit to six, 39-33, with 3:13 left in the third.
Then it was Velijkovic’s time to shine. He nailed back-to-back 3-pointers—the second of which came after he produced a steal—and Djalovic closed the quarter with consecutive baskets to complete an impressive 19-0 run to give Oakwood a 43-39 lead entering the final quarter.
Velijkovic scored eight of his 19 points in the fourth, displaying all of his ability and skills in the process. Working well off the ball to get free of a pesky defender, Velijkovic drove to the basket with authority in the second half. It was a 180-degree turnaround from the first half, in which Velijkovic got picked four times and committed six turnovers. The fact that Velijkovic responded to the adversity showed a mental toughness that will serve him well going forward.
“I don’t know why (I didn’t play well in the first half),” he said. “It could be mental, and that guy played tough on me, but I want to thank coach and all of my teammates who gave me really big support. They kept giving me the ball in the third quarter even when I missed a lot of shots in the first and second quarters. I just stayed focused, played my game and the shots started going in.”
Jensen, who is in his 10th season as the Oakwood coach, gave his team some extra rest last weekend as the high school season can be grueling at times. The Hawks simply couldn’t get off the ground in the first half against King City, which to its credit hit several running shots in and around the lane—shots that are difficult to block—exacerbating Oakwood’s lack of rhythm on both ends of the court.
“Our boys came our really flat,” Jensen said. “The effort wasn’t good. The execution on offense wasn’t sharp and the timing was off. It’s like an orchestra and if everyone comes in on the wrong note, it doesn’t sound good. We talked about that at halftime: timing, effort, physical play, stepping up, and playing more like a real high school team and not like a small division high school.”
Jensen probably made an impassioned speech to his players at halftime, knowing the team was not playing to its potential. That is why Jensen took four of the five starters of the court—Justin Gonzaga was the only starter who stayed in the game—for a brief time in the second quarter. Gonzaga brings a ton of intangibles, something that every team needs.
“When I pulled four of the five starters, I left him in because I liked his body language,” Jensen said. “He was up, he was proud, he was fighting. Then we started running plays specifically for him and our second unit in that minute and a half got us a two-point advantage.”
When the four starters got re-inserted into the game, things didn’t go much better.
“It was all across the board (in terms of the players not executing),” Jensen said. “We were lacking with our decision-making, and we weren’t getting the ball to the right person at the right time. We started pressing and tried to do things we’re not capable of doing.”
However, Gonzaga was strong throughout the contest. The 5-10 guard/forward is the Draymond Green of the Hawks, being a glue player and tough offensively, defensively and on the boards. Gonzaga made plays at crucial moments and does things that don’t show up on the stat sheet—just like Green. Things like switching and helping on defense, setting screens and boxing out well.
“In the second half our big man was in foul trouble, and Justin Gonzaga came off his man to double on the ball and still was able to recover and get his man,” Jensen said. “That is a lot to ask, particularly for a high school player who is still learning the game, but he did it brilliantly. They could never get Nikola (to foul out), although they tried. That’s because Justin kept coming and digging at the ball. He would either get the steal, recover or get his man. He was the player of the game in my mind; he was awesome.”
That would also be one way to describe Velijkovic ‘s play in the second half, as he showed determination and persevered through a rough first half.
“Andrej is a really good player,” Jensen said. “He’s averaging about 22 points a game for us, and he recently set a school record (for single-game point performance) with 39. He’s hit nine 3-pointers in a game for us, and is just dynamite.”
This was a long time coming for Oakwood, which lost a 79-78, four-overtime thriller to King City in the Watsonville Tournament on Dec. 13, then blew an early 18-5 lead in a loss in the teams’ first league contest on Jan. 11. It looked for a while the third time wasn’t going to be the charm for the Hawks until they hit another gear early in the third quarter.
King City would’ve built up a bigger lead in the first half had it not been for Justin Bautista, a 5-11 junior point guard. Even though Bautista didn’t play a great first half, his average half is still better than a lot of other guards’ level of play. Excellent at setting the tempo, getting the team into its offense and being an overall floor leader, Bautista shined brightest in the second half, setting up his teammates for scores by dribble penetration or effective passes.
Velijkovic knew it was paramount to beat King City for the first time in three tries.
“We feel really good about this win,” he said. “It was an important game for us. I think we’re going to win this league (title).”
Velijkovic is a foreign-exchange student from Serbia, and his older brother plays at a community college in Los Angeles. Velijkovic has enjoyed his transition to America, noting he’s allowed more freedom to play the sport he started at age 9.
“Here you can be more free, whereas in Europe coaches are a little stricter,” he said. “Sometimes it gets tough when you make one mistake you go to the bench. Here you have more freedom to learn from your mistakes and take more shots and make plays. I know I can make a mistake and don’t have to worry about going to the bench, and that really helps mentally.”
Velijkovic grew up admiring NBA legends Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant, and he has taken to emulating Bryant’s intensity when it comes to practice.
“His work ethic is something that I try to follow to work on my game as much as I can,” he said. “I try to practice everyday and go to the gym whenever I can.”
When the team had a three-day break recently, Velijkovic still found a way to practice, working on his shooting and fine-tuning other parts of his game.
“Sometimes coach will open up the gym before school starts and I’ll get some extra shots in,” Velijkovic said. “This is my passion and what I love to do.”
Even though Velijkovic is far from home, technology has made the transition to America easier. He FaceTimes with his family almost everyday, which has helped him realize just how important family is. His older brother of three years was always stronger than him, and Andrej still to this day has never got the best of him in a 1-on-1 game.
“But now since I’m older I’m really close to beating him,” he said.