Tech girls bring home OAL hoops title
on March 5, 2012
Valerie Hartsfield shook her head and smiled. The Oakland Tech girls basketball coach had just watched her team win its third Oakland Athletic League (OAL) title in a row—during her third year coaching the team—and she said she wasn’t surprised.
“All year long, I knew that once we get to the playoffs, Oakland Tech plays at a different level,” Hartsfield said as jubilant players walked by smiling. “Everything feels familiar. We’ve just got so much talent on this team.”
Oakland Tech finished off the OAL season with a 76-59 win over Castlemont in the league championship game on Saturday afternoon at Laney College. The Bulldogs will move on to the Northern California playoffs for the third consecutive time. But this year is different than the others for Hartsfield and Tech—this time Tech is led by four freshman starters, usually unheard-of for a champion high school team.
The Tech freshman were responsible for Saturday’s win, a game during which Tech controlled throughout by pressuring Castlemont’s offense into turnovers and then pushing the ball quickly the other way for easy baskets. First-year players Kalea Pickeral-Dennis, a 6’ tall forward, and Da’Ja’nay Powell, a 6’3” center, improved throughout the season and were dominant close to the basket against Castlemont, making fundamentally solid shots and passing easily to each other.
Pickeral-Dennis scored 16 of her 20 points in the first half, including six in a row after Castlemont closed within six points early. Castlemont’s Knights were never within single digits for the rest of the game. Powell was a constant target for passes from the Tech guards, and the freshman center either deposited the ball in the basket, scoring 14 points, or kicked it out to a teammate for an open jump shot. Once such recipient for many of her passes was fellow freshman Amelia Li, who was deadly accurate from the outside and scored 18 points.
“Not bad for a freshman,” Powell said after the game of her own performance.
In contrast, the boys final, which followed the Tech win and pitted McClymonds against Castlemont, was all about the upperclassmen. Behind 15 points from star senior guard Lawrence Otis, and a gutsy performance from teammate and fellow senior Dulani Robinson, McClymonds High won its first OAL title since 2009 with a 57-51 win over Castlemont.
McClymonds led by 20 points at the end of the third quarter and looked like the team would cruise to an easy win after an acrobatic, scooping layup by Otis closed out the third quarter. But Castlemont, led by an inspired Davone Oliver, never folded. Oliver, a 5’8” guard, fearlessly and consistently took the ball to the basket against Mack’s much taller defenders, winning some and losing some. Oliver finished with a team-high 11 points, and said after the game that even though he gave his all, the loss hurt.
“I’m feeling terrible right now, but we can’t hold our heads,” Oliver said. “We have to give everything we have just like that if we’re going to win state.”
Robinson certainly gave his all. Mack’s senior guard was already hobbled by a left leg injury from a win over Skyline High School on Friday, and then he was accidentally kicked in the right thigh while going for a loose ball early in Saturday’s game. Robinson stayed in the game but played with a noticeable limp, and still was able to hit some big shots and lead a tough defensive effort by Mack.
“I’m pretty beat up, but I’ve got to put it on the line for our team,” Robinson said. “I put my health on the line for my team to win.”
All four teams competing Saturday receive automatic berths in the Northern California playoffs, which begin on Wednesday, with games for Tech and Mack at Tech on Wednesday night. The Castlemont boys and girls games will be on the road. Tech earned the No. 5 seed and plays No. 12 Heritage at 7 pm.
Tech girls’ team coach Hartsfield said she’s hoping this year is different for the Bulldogs in the NorCal playoffs as well. In the previous two seasons, Tech was knocked out in the third round, two wins away from a state title. Even though her team is the youngest she’s coached, Hartsfield said this may be the year Tech brings home another title.
“In my heart, I know we have a chance to get over the hump,” Hartsfield said. “We have so much talent on this team.”
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