San Luis Obispo High School freshman Assani Berkeley announced his arrival at an open gym last fall.
It was there in the big gym at SLO High that Berkeley — the new kid on campus after transferring from Madison, Wisconsin — went head-to-head with Mac McConnell, the boys basketball team’s senior starting point guard.
McConnell hit a 3-pointer. Berkeley returned fire. Everyone stopped to watch the intense battle, including SLO High head coach Jeff Brandow.
“The question of can this kid play varsity went out the window right there,” Brandow said. “I thought, ‘OK, we might be pretty good this year.’ ”
Berkeley, who just turned 15 last week, has been the perfect addition to one of the most balanced teams on the Central Coast this season that is in the midst of a historic run to the semifinals of the CIF-Southern Section Division 4AA playoffs. Berkley had 14 first-half points and 17 total in SLO High’s first-round win over Alhambra, he’s averaging 10 points per game for the season and always guards the other team’s best player on defense.
“You could just tell right away that he had the talent,” Brandow said. “He is a great teammate, a hard worker, and he’s tough.”
But he’s not solely responsible for helping SLO High reach the Final Four in the sectional playoffs for the first time since the 1988-89 season. Berkeley is just one of five players averaging double digits this season, including sophomore big man Carson Leedom (14 ppg), McConnell (12 ppg), senior Will Compton (12 ppg) and junior Addasson Wright (11 ppg).
“Offensively, we are good,” Berkeley said after a recent win. “It’s defense where we need to be our best. We just need to lock down and get stops.”
That’s exactly what happened in the quarterfinals Tuesday night against Silverado. SLO High held the team from Victorville to just four points in the second quarter and cruised to a 58-37 win to secure a spot in the semifinals.
“If we go back to the PAC 8 (league season), we were 10-1, and we stopped playing defense. That’s why we lost three games in a row to end the season,” Brandow said. “To be honest with you, it was the best thing to happen to us.”
SLO High held on for a share of the PAC 8 title with Mission Prep, but the Tigers have dialed up the defense in the first three rounds of the playoffs. The average margin of victory in the Tigers’ playoff run is just fewer than 20 points.
Tuesday’s blowout win also locked up an invitation to the CIF State tournament, the first in school history, according to Brandow, in two weeks.
“It has really been a fun season and a great experience with my teammates,” Berkeley said.
The next challenge for SLO High comes Friday in Riverside against Hillcrest, the No. 1 seed in Division 4AA.
A win would give SLO High a spot in the finals and a chance to win its first division championship since 1952.