‘We had to battle’: Branson claims MCAL basketball title

Jase Butler prepares for a free throw during the MCAL title game at Redwood High School on Feb. 10, 2023. Branson boys basketball defeated Redwood for the championship.

By Saylor Mullarkey

As an opposing player’s 3-point attempt swished easily through the bottom of the net, the four minutes of overtime in the MCAL championship game launched with what might have felt like unwelcome deja-vu for Branson boys basketball.

“We had to battle,” point guard Semetri Carr said.

That battle was punctuated not only by a 71-50 win over San Marin in the semifinals, but by a need for some on-court retribution. 

Entering Friday’s championship matchup, the Bulls would face the team that handed them their sole loss of the season just days before. The Redwood Giants’ victory over the 15-1 Bulls had garnered them the top seed in the MCAL tournament. 

That may have been a driving force in Branson’s 45-41 championship victory. 

“When we faced obstacles, we fought through adversity to get to the finish line,” Carr said.

For Carr and other young players on the team, Friday’s game marked the first MCAL title matchup of their high school careers. Leading by low single digits for most of the defensive contest, the Bulls lost their lead with just minutes to play. 

A strong push by the Giants down the stretch sent the game into overtime, when Redwood’s Jake Vasquez buried a 3-pointer to begin.

For the Bulls, that moment was a rallying cry rather than a setback.

“We always stay strong together and composed in the biggest moments,” forward Finley Keeffe said. “Hard work and sacrifices paid off for us down the stretch.”

As Redwood tried to mount a comeback, Branson junior Jase Butler stole an inbound pass with just 15 seconds to play, sealing Branson’s path to victory over the Giants. 

For center George Gale, his MCAL career could hardly end on a better note. 

“I thought it was awesome to go out with a win,” he said. “It reflects a lot of hard work and time that we put in.”

When we faced obstacles, we fought through adversity to get to the finish line.

— Semetri Carr

Branson head coach Stevie Johnson echoed Gale’s sentiments. 

“This was just the culmination of the sacrifice, long summers and hard work that guys have made all year to our basketball team,” Johnson said. “It took lessons being passed down from past Branson teams and a community of support.”

Some of those lessons run deep. The last time Johnson coached against Redwood in a championship game was in 2019, when he was an assistant coach. This was one of the last games Branson standout Kwentyn Wiggins played in before his death later that year.

As time ran out in Friday’s face-off, the elation of Branson’s team, the support of the fans and the rush onto the court were all evident. Out of sight was the necklace assistant coach Mark Carlson wore with Wiggins’ name and birthday etched onto metal dog tags, as well as the shirt commemorating Wiggins under Johnson’s Branson hoodie.

“Even when you don’t see it, I’m wearing it, always,” Johnson said. 

The support within the team helped propel them to victory Friday and what Johnson hopes will be continued success in the Bulls’ North Coast Section push. 

“Guys were just resilient all year,” Johnson said. “They imagined this success, and they did it. The main thing it took was just belief in themselves and trust in each other.” 

The Bulls secured the top spot in NCS Division III rankings, earning them a bye for the first week of the playoffs. Johnson and assistant coach Colin Hamilton believe the Bulls are ready for whatever they face. 

“We have a team full of great kids who come from amazing families and they’re all really good friends,” Hamilton said. “Everyone roots for everyone else and they enjoy each other’s success as much as their own. 

“When all the coaches and players are together for a practice or a game the energy is crazy. If you saw our layup lines in practice, you’d say, ‘Wow, these guys are having a lot of fun!’ We’re definitely a basketball family.”

Powered by that sense of family and belief, the Bulls’ ambitions stretch beyond just one banner. 

“This was a great win for us,” Carr said. “But now it’s time to focus on winning NCS and a state championship.”