The St. Joseph Notre Dame High boys basketball team has a proud tradition of competing in the state championship game. And that tradition has usually involved blowing out its Northern California competition to advance to the grandest stage.
But this year's Pilots team has its own personality. Not quite the run-and-gun squad they were in past years, the Pilots have used more of a bruising, half-court style to advance to Friday's CIF Division V state championship against Horizon Christian-San Diego at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento.
Compared to last season when the Pilots -- led by speedy guards Gemeny Givens and Nick Lacy -- won five playoff contests by more than 20 points, this year's playoff run has a been a grind, with only two of their seven victories coming by more than 10 points. Instead of a man-to-man defense, St. Joseph Notre Dame, with forwards Temidayo Yussuf and Lamont Banks and guard Marcus Harris, has used almost exclusively a 2-3 zone.
Pilots coach Don Lippi generally prefers an up-tempo approach, but a half-court style "fit the team better this year, and we've had success with it."
The most points St. Joseph Notre Dame (25-11) has allowed so far this season is 65 in a 16-point loss to El Cerrito two months ago, and it hasn't allowed more than 42 points in any of its seven playoff wins.
To win a fifth state championship Friday, which would be a record for a Northern California boys program, St. Joseph Notre Dame will have to contain Horizon Christian's perimeter shooting. The speedy Panthers (22-11), led by guards Cody Underwood and Micah Goeglein, have attempted 515 3-pointers this season.
Lippi said Horizon Christian isn't afraid to attempt the deep 3-pointer, which forces opposing teams to extend their defense and opens the lane for drives to the basket.
Defending that comes down to getting a hand in the face of the shooter, Lippi said, and having the other four defenders on the floor help out as needed.
"We'll start our zone at the NBA 3-point line," Lippi said, "not the top of the key."
St. Joseph Notre Dame has a 4-4 all-time record in state championship games. What Lippi wants his team to do Friday is enjoy the moment, and appreciate the work that's gone in to getting to this point once again.
"The community expectation is that this is normal procedure, and it's not normal procedure in California," Lippi said. "These kids have talent, but they've played above their talent level this season."