Menlo-Atherton uses stifling defensive pressure to beat Christopher

ATHERTON — Menlo-Atherton went on a 9-2 run to close the first half with a seven-point lead, and went on from there, dictating tempo in the second half in a 55-42 victory Saturday over Christopher in a matchup between a pair of teams in first place in their respective leagues.

M-A (12-3) utilized its trademark aggressive defensive approach to force 18 turnovers, 12 in the decisive second half.

“We’re getting better defensively,” M-A coach Mike Molieri said.”That was something I was concerned about with this group earlier in the season.”

After first telling his team he wouldn’t allow them to pick up full-court until they played better defense in the half-court, Molieri ceded to the wishes of his players and allowed them to extend their defense in the second half.

“They’re the ones playing, not me, so I said, ‘Let’s do it,’” Molieri said. “I’m OK about freedom as long as they show discipline.”

The change worked well as the Bears went on a run to up their lead to 17. Jalen Williams sparked that run, scoring eight consecutive points on a three-point play, a pair of foul shots and a 3-point field goal, to increase their lead from 39-30 to 47-30.

Williams finished with a game-high 14 points.Grant Zell added 10 points for the Bears, making two 3-pointers.

“We’ve got a lot of athletes, we’re entertaining,” Molieri said. “As long as we keep getting better we’ll be fine.”

M-A has been among the best public-school boys basketball programs in the Central Coast Section for a number of years. The Bears have gone 151-50 under Molieri since 2016 and won a CCS Division I title last year. They are 4-0 in Peninsula Athletic League South Division play this season, tied for first place with Hillsdale and Burlingame.

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Adam Sax, who previously coached at Palo Alto and Piedmont Hills, is in his second season at Christopher. After going 19-8 last season, the Cougars are off to a 13-4 start this time around and in first place at 4-0 in the Blossom Valley Athletic League Mt. Hamilton-East Division.

Scheduling the non-league game with M-A was designed to help his team raise its level. Despite the loss, Sax said he expects the experience to benefit his team.

“They’re a high-caliber team so I tried to schedule them,” Sax said. “Their speed, the way they trap, they’re a higher level team than we see in our league.”

Christopher stayed in the game thanks in part to a seven-point advantage on the foul line. The Cougars went 15 of 23 from the charity stripe while M-A was 8 of 17.

“We need to get a free-throw doctor here,” Molieri said. “That’s been part of our struggles. We’ve got to figure it out. I think free throws are just a mental thing and these guys have really got to focus. We’ve lost two games on the free-throw line. In the postseason games get a lot tougher and we’ve got to be better.”

Chigozie Okeke led Christopher with nine points. Sophomore Braddock Kjellesvig, playing limited minutes after an injury in a win over Leland the previous night, scored eight.