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Behind Jaiamoni Welch-Coleman, Berkeley won its 22nd NCS title and stomped into the state tourney   By NICK HASTINGS | SportStars   As Jaimoni... Caught 22

Behind Jaiamoni Welch-Coleman, Berkeley won its 22nd NCS title and stomped into the state tourney

  By NICK HASTINGS | SportStars

  As Jaimoni Welch-Coleman and the Berkeley High girls left the floor at McKeon Pavilion, the crowd joined them in exuberant chants of “Ja-ckets! Ja-ckets!”

  Welch-Coleman — the only senior on Berkeley’s team — scored 25 points to help the second-seeded Yellowjackets defeat the Pittsburg 54-47 in the North Coast Section Division I final on March 6.

  Berkeley, appearing in their fifth NCS title game in six years, withstood multiple Pittsburg comeback attempts to escape with a wire-to-wire victory. It marked the 22nd North Coast Section championship for the Yellow Jackets.

  The Pirates were underdogs coming into the game, and it showed. Pittsburg’s leading scorers, guards Seuvahnia Kuka and Adorah Buggs, struggled to score against Berkeley’s mobile defenders. The two teams played contrasting styles, with Pittsburg relying on its size and strength against Berkeley’s mobility and perimeter shooting.

  Coach Cheryl Draper’s Yellowjackets came out on top — thanks, in large part, to their prowess from behind the 3-point line. Guard Shani Jones scored Berkeley’s first eight points — including two 3s— and Welch-Coleman poured in four buckets from beyond the arc.

  “I think this year‘s (accomplishments) are more impressive because we don’t have as much experience,” Welch-Coleman said after the game. “We lost some key pieces (from last year’s team), so this is a bigger accomplishment.”

  Berkeley’s girls received a little extra motivation midway through the second quarter, when team captain Taki Brandon injured her ankle and had to be carried off the floor.

  “It both hurt and motivated us,” Welch-Coleman said. “But regardless, we had to keep playing. Whoever comes in for Taki — they’re not Taki, but they’re going to come in and play their role. It hurt, but we needed to play through it.”

  The Yellow Jackets were fortunate that Kuka and Buggs — dynamic ball handlers in the open floor — missed multiple open floaters in transition. Buggs appeared visibly rattled during the game, wincing at times as she appeared to be nursing a foot or ankle injury. Kuka, coming off a masterful 30-point performance against top-seeded James Logan in the semifinal, turned the ball over on consecutive possessions late in the game and never truly looked comfortable on the floor.

  Pittsburg was missing senior captain Vicky Duenas, and it showed.

  The Berkeley defense appeared to have rattled the Pirates a bit, forcing turnovers both above the break and in the lane. A bright spot for Pittsburg — and one of the key reasons the Pirates hung in the game until the very end — were the performances of their post players. Senior captain Shaima Wilson contributed 12 points and 17 huge rebounds, and 6-foot-1 senior Ashari Shakir was a force to be reckoned with in the key, gobbling up offensive rebounds and scoring at will.

  Unfortunately for the Pirates, Berkeley’s balanced approach proved too much for coach Matthew Lane’s squad. Perhaps the previous games took a toll on Pittsburg. While the Pirates faced No. 1 seed James Logan and won their first three playoff games by a combined 16 points, Berkeley cruised to the title game with an average margin of victory of nearly 14 points per game.

  Berkeley’s strategy against Pittsburg was clear from the start — rebound and get out in transition.

  “When we play against bigger teams [like Pittsburg], we just try and box out every time. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but we try,” said Welch-Coleman with a laugh. “We wanted to run the floor on them. The only time we slow it up is when we’re trying to [milk the clock].”

  The Yellow Jackets never had to resort to milking the clock, though. A series of questionable foul calls on both ends put the game away in Berkeley’s favor, despite Kuka’s late baskets. Make no mistake, though – Berkeley’s defense won this game, not the referees.

  Although Berkeley’s girls will savor this win, there’s more work to do. The Yellowjackets drew the No. 3 seed in the CIF Div. I Northern Regional tournament and advanced to a March 14 quarterfinal against James Logan.

  “We want to go to State (CIF),” said Welch-Coleman. “We’re going to have to play the way we’ve been playing this postseason and win every game. No more losing.”

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