By C. Jayden Smith
SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO – Chants of “We can’t hear you!” and “Ring Season” echoed through a packed but otherwise silent gym during the final seconds of Friday night’s contest.
The No. 8-ranked St. Bernard Vikings (19-6) pulled away in the fourth quarter to beat JSerra at home, 71-59, for the CIF-SS Division 1 championship on Friday, Feb. 25 at JSerra Catholic High School.
This was JSerra’s second CIF-SS Final but first runner-up plaque. The Lions (19-10) won the Division 4AA title in 2014.
St. Bernard’s Jason Hart, Jr., a senior, was largely responsible for the Lions’ defeat, pouring in 15 of his game-high 23 points in the fourth quarter.
Hart knocked down three 3-pointers and cashed in on all six free throw attempts to help his team maintain the lead.
The Vikings got off to a similarly hot start from behind the arc in the first quarter, using four made 3-pointers — two from Hart — to grab a 17-11 lead at the end.
JSerra coach Keith Wilkinson said his team competed despite the nerves to remain within striking distance.
“We had a different lineup, the first lineup we’ve ever had this year without (starting guard EJ Bryson), who’s been out,” he said. “He tore his ACL in the last game, so our sophomore Sebastian Rancik came in and I thought he did a good job for us.”
Lions guard Rob Diaz had a seven-point second quarter, helping JSerra stay close to St. Bernard. The Vikings were up 26-24 going into halftime.
However, St. Bernard’s switch to a zone defense late in the second quarter started to give the Lions fits.
It slowed down the game and JSerra’s offense, allowing the Vikings to seize the momentum and jump out to a 10-point lead before Wilkinson had to call timeout.
The balance of the aggressive, physical man defense and smartly played zone limited JSerra. Diaz missed all of his shots in the third.
Wilkinson said it hurt not to have Bryson in that moment, as they lacked their best creator and someone who could get his teammates open.
“We didn’t make shots, and we didn’t create enough opportunities against that zone,” he added. “That’s why we struggled.”
Despite Diaz’ own struggles, the coaching staff continued to encourage him to shoot and play confidently.
Other Lions chipped in to help claw back to within four when St. Bernard took a timeout with 1:07 left in the third quarter. Then, the Vikings found their mojo again.
Cleaning up the turnovers that let JSerra remain close, St. Bernard stretched its lead to eight by the end of the third and led by as many as 13 points midway through the final frame.
From then on, the two teams traded buckets until the end. Every time the Lions gained any momentum, St. Bernard quickly answered.
It was Hart who hit the dagger three with around 1:30 left to put the Vikings up 63-49. Every Viking starter on the court was subbed out a minute later, except for Hart, who made his final free throws to cap off the night.
Both teams made the State playoffs, but JSerra will have to continue to limp along with so many players injured.
“Hopefully we can regroup and make a run at State, but I’m just so proud of these guys,” Wilkinson said.
JSerra will learn its CIF State Regional draw on Sunday, Feb. 27, but the Lions may likely be on the road for the opening round on Tuesday, March 1.
C. Jayden Smith graduated from Dana Hills High in 2018 before pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in digital and broadcast journalism from the University of North Texas. After graduating in December 2020, he reported for the Salina Journal in Salina, Kansas. Jayden loves college football and bothering his black lab named Shadow.