Julio Lara/Daily Journal
Connor Haupt is mobbed by his Burlingame teammates following the Panthers' win in the Central Coast Section Division III championship.
With a word and a smile that hurled a heavy load off the collective shoulders of a proud basketball program, Burlingame High School center Nick Loew summed up the feeling of an entire city.
Finally. Finally the Burlingame boys' basketball team is a Central Coast Section champion.
The 2012-13 Panthers did what no other Burlingame team had done in its history Saturday afternoon at Foothill College by defeating Santa Cruz 54-51 and capturing the CCS Division III title. In thrilling fashion and in front of what felt like the entire city of Burlingame, the Panther withstood a second-half surge that saw the Cardinals wipe away a 10-point halftime deficit (and one that actually reach 13 at different times) to take the lead with 3:59 left in the game. But Loew, Connor Haupt, Mikel Floro-Cruz, Willam Dobson and the entire Burlingame team fueled a passionate four minutes of basketball that saw the Panthers forge ahead and hold on.
"I lot of people doubted us and didn't think we'd be very good this year," Loew, who scored 17 points and brought down 16 rebounds, said. "It felt good to prove people wrong today."
"I think the difference was, at the end of the day, good teams find a way to win and we proved we are a good team," Floro-Cruz said. "We never gave up throughout the whole game and it's just an amazing feeling."
The feeling for the team has to be greater considering the season-long journey undergone by the Panthers -- from a coaching change to begin the season, to a tough run through even tougher non-league opponents, through a 12-0 record in Peninsula Athletic League South Division play, through a disappointing loss in the PAL tournament semifinals and then a couple of nail-biting wins in the CCS playoffs -- without a doubt, it was one of the crazier rides in the entire section.
"No. I thought we were going to try and survive," said first year head coach Pete Harames when asked if he could have ever envisioned standing as a CCS champion when he took over the Burlingame varsity team in August 2012. "I thought we had good players and the junior class is terrific as far as, I've had them before. But, with the seniors it took us a while to learn about each other, see what was going on and it was a tough preseason while we were trying to adjust. They have that competitive spirit."
The Panthers needed every ounce of that spirit Saturday afternoon.
Burlingame got out to a hot start from the tip-off. They shot 6 of 9 from the floor in the first quarter led by Haupt and his pair of 3-pointers. Loew also established himself in the paint from the get-go. Together they helped Burlingame build a 16-10 lead.
"I was just trying to take my time in the post," Loew said of his start. "I came out and scored on the first possession and I rushed my shot in the second. As soon as I did that my coaches told me to slow down, take my time and that's what I did. I tried to get in a good rhythm inside."
Burlingame's hot start bled over to the second quarter after another Haupt trifecta and Loew bucket made it 23-10 as part of an 11-0 Panther run. For the half, Burlingame shot 46 percent and led 27-17 at recess.
There were no real signs of let-up to start the second half for the Panthers. The Cardinals pushed but every time they did, someone -- Floro-Cruz, Haupt, Loew -- was there to push right back.
But Santa Cruz didn't reach the DIII final by accident. The Cardinals' big run of the game manifested itself in the form of Spencer Schwartz who burnt white-hot when Burlingame's lead reached 38-25. No. 23 hit 10-straight points in a solo run that ran into the fourth quarter and ignited his Santa Cruz teammates, bench and fans. By the time Burlingame could control the flames, and actually hit a shot to respond, the Cardinals led 45-44 with 3:59 left on the clock.
"We had them by 10 there for a while and they battled back -- credit them, they came out with some fire in the second half," Haupt said. "But at the end of the day, I know my guys wanted it more."
"They (Santa Cruz) made their run in a six-minute area where we could still compete," Harames said, "and so it became a game, possession against possession. Once it got to a 1, 2-point game, now our concentration was focused."
"Maybe the first part of the run, we were on heels a little bit but as got into it, we've been through that the entire season," Floro-Cruz, who finished with eight points, said. "We've come back from huge deficits. My team is great. Everyone does their part. But I knew that when my team needed me, I could step up. I was ready for the moment."
As it turned out, the entire Burlingame team was ready for that moment. After years of reaching CCS finals and folding under pressure, 2012-13 was the season when the Panthers chose to seize the championship opportunity. They needed heavy doses of hustle by Dobson, Chris Graham and Grant Goodman on the boards, and clutch free throw shooting by Haupt and Floro-Cruz.
With 4.5 seconds left in the game, Santa Cruz hit its final basket to make it a 52-51 game in favor of the Panthers and then fouled Haupt on the inbound with 3.1 seconds left.
And perhaps there is nothing more fitting or poetic than having Burlingame's poster boy on the free throw line with the school's first ever boys' CCS title at stake. Calmly, Haupt hit the pair.
"I always want the ball in my hands when it's crunch time," Haupt said. "I just tried to come in shooting like any other game -- come out firing when I have the open shot. They were going down in the first half and it felt good and thankfully it turned out well for us.
"It's the best feeling I've ever had in my life. By far. Definitely it was a tough start (to the season). We transitioned to a new coach. But I couldn't be happier. We have the best coaches in the world. We started off a little slow. We had a tough preseason schedule. Everyone doubted us. Everyone thought we were going to finished sixth in the PAL and now we're here champions of CCS," Haupt, who led Burlingame with 22 points, said.
"I think rebounding today and defense was key," Loew said postgame. "I mean, we did give up a lot of offensive rebounds, but in the end, we closed it out and we did the things that we needed to do to win. Mikel missed last year and he came out this year with a fire I've never seen. He's a great point guard. We wouldn't have won without him.
"Personally, I love the underdog mentality that we had. We missed three months (with the coaching change), so we're three months behind every other school. So when you have that, you automatically have a fire inside you and you just come out and win. You have to bust your ass, try and play your hardest and do everything you can to win. That's what we've been doing all season long."
It's something the Panthers have done throughout their history.
And it all came together on Saturday afternoon. Finally.