Alexis Gray-Lawson pulled aside Oakland Tech junior Mari Somvichian in the tunnel leading to the Golden 1 Center’s basketball court just minutes before the state championship game on March 11.
“I was making fun of her because she never knew that 21 was my high school number,” said the athletic director, who led Tech to repeat state titles as a player in 2004 and 2005. “I said, ‘You better take care of that number.’ She said, ‘Yeah, I got you.’ ”
With seconds left in the CIF Division III title game and Tech clinging to a one-point lead over La Salle-Pasadena, Somvichian received a pass in the corner. The guard let a 3-pointer fly. Swish!
Three years after winning the 2019 state title, with the coronavirus pandemic canceling the two championship games in between, the Bulldogs were once again back on top. And the team had matched Gray-Lawson’s back-to-back feat.
“That’s the way to represent my number!” Gray-Lawson told Somvichian amid the jubilation in Sacramento.
Oakland Tech’s girls basketball team has been excellent for many years, and a new generation of players and coaches are continuing the tradition. The team has dominated its conference for several years running and some want to see Tech moved into a higher state tournament bracket to compete with bigger schools and more elite teams.
A hard fought game
Before swishing the biggest basket of her life, Somvichian, who plays point guard, had made only four of her prior 19 shots, including her attempts during the Northern California title game victory over Lincoln High, a school in the small town of the same name 30 miles north of Sacramento.
“I put the work in and you have to trust your work,” the North Oakland resident said.” Just because you miss one doesn’t mean the next one won’t fall. You miss 10 and the next 10 will go in. Law of averages, you know?”
Tech trailed 11-5 after the first quarter and 19-16 at halftime before a 10-0 run in the third quarter gave the Bulldogs a 31-25 lead. Taliyah Logwood and Jala Williams opened the rally with baskets to tie the score. Guard Erin Sellers then scored six consecutive points to give Tech the lead for good. La Salle twice closed within one point during the fourth quarter, including with less than a minute remaining, before Somvichian iced the game.
The play, called “Howard,” runs through junior Sophia Askew-Goncalves, the go-to post player on a guard-heavy Tech roster. Somvichian and Askew-Goncalves actually first proposed the play to head coach Leroy Hurt after learning it while playing for their summer basketball team. Hurt made tweaks, and called for the play with Tech struggling to score in the final minutes.
The ball goes to Askew-Goncalves in the post. The forward can look to score or, if double-teamed, find an open teammate on the weak side. Askew-Goncalves had dominated the smaller La Salle players throughout the game, and kept her cool when defenders swarmed.
“I held the ball up high where they couldn’t get it, and saw Nia [Hunter] wide open,” Askew-Goncalves said. “A couple of plays before, the pass got tipped. So I threw it a little higher and Nia jumped to catch the ball.” Hunter then passed to Somvichian who took the shot.
Somvichian tripped over her defender’s feet as the ball sank through the basket, with the Tech cheer team erupting feet away. Somvichian gained her footing to flex and let out a scream. Askew-Goncalves bolted back on defense. Logwood intercepted a pass and fed Sellers for a breakaway layup as the buzzer sounded.
Tech’s past two seasons were filled with heartache, but players remained patient and resilient
Tech won the 2019 state title against Northview-Covina in the Division IV bracket. It was the school’s first title since Gray-Lawson and fellow star Devanei Hampton won Division I crowns in 2004 and 2005 during head coach Pico Wilburn’s final seasons.
The 10 seasons in between saw Tech compete for Oakland Athletic League titles while posting only two losing records. However, the Bulldogs went through four head coaches and did not make a NorCal title game.
Meanwhile, the California Interscholastic Federation, which governs high school sports, changed its criteria used to determine which division a team competes in. For girls basketball, there are seven different divisions, with Division I considered the most competitive and made up mostly of the largest schools. The CIF decided, however, to assign teams to divisions based on their season performance rather than strictly enrollment. Previously, all Oakland Athletic League state basketball champions were Division I or Open Division. Oakland Tech’s girls team was placed in Division IV and more recently Division III.
With Hurt becoming head coach in 2015-16, the Bulldogs slowly built their basketball program back up and were on the verge of repeating in 2020 but, a day before heading back to Sacramento as NorCal champions, the state title game was canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Players shed tears. Their chance to repeat was put on hold.
The 2021 season was reduced to four games and the entire postseason was canceled as the virus continued to ravage communities. Some Tech players lost family members to the virus, said Hurt, and repeating as state champs became an afterthought; the 2019 title became a distant memory.
With Sellers, Somvichian and Askew-Goncalves among key returning players in 2021-22, the Bulldogs rolled through league play and beat Castlemont High in the OAL tournament championship game. Tech then beat Homestead-Cupertino, Dixon High School, and Priory-Portola Valley, all at home, to reach the Northern California title game, where they defeated host Lincoln 51-46 to play for the state crown.
In the home of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, Sellers led the Bulldogs with 13 points and Askew-Goncalves had a team-high 12 rebounds and two blocked shots.
“There were a lot of tears,” Sellers said. “We waited so long for this. To be able to finish it out with those people was a great feeling.”
Hurt, described by Sellers as “always serious and always business,” danced the Griddy while accepting his team’s trophy.
“It was a thing we’ve tried to get him to do all season,” said Askew-Goncalves, who attended Edna Brewer Middle School along with Sellers. “He said if we win the state title, I’ll do whatever you want. It was the funniest thing that I’ve ever seen, and an important moment.”
The Bulldogs’ coach and athletic director are both Tech alumni
When Hurt, whose day job is project management for Overaa Construction, returned to his company’s office the Monday after the championship game, he got a ribbing from coworkers: “Everyone was like, ‘No way, you won the title?’”
The 1989 Tech graduate got his coaching start by surprise while attending UC Davis in the mid-1990s.
“I was working at a middle school, and one day I’m in the office and my boss said, ‘You’re coaching the boys and girls basketball team,’” Hurt recalled. “It meant she didn’t have to go through the hiring process. That’s literally how I got my start.”
Hurt graduated from UC Davis in 1994 and briefly coached the Arroyo High School-San Lorenzo boys team before later becoming Piedmont High School’s girls coach. He currently runs an AAU program along with coaching at Tech.
“We were fantastic defensively,” Hurt said of the state title game. “Once we got the lead I was more comfortable. We got hot at the right time and what more can you say? There was no giving up on anything.”
Watching from the stands, Gray-Lawson felt the pang of nostalgia. She was a star player at Tech in the mid-2000s, but wasn’t on the court for her team’s two state titles. Both she and Hampton fouled out in narrow victories.
“When I was playing it was about teamwork,” Gray-Lawson said. “Devanei and I got a lot of love over those two years. They said the team was nothing without Alexis and Devanie. Then we were on the bench and the teammates had to step up.”
After playing at Tech, Gray-Lawson helped lead Cal women’s basketball to four consecutive NCAA Tournaments, including a Sweet 16 appearance. Gray-Lawson is believed to be the only Oakland native to play in a regular season WNBA game, spending two seasons with the Phoenix Mercury. She returned to Tech as an administrator this fall and teaches a class titled African-American Female Excellence. Several girls basketball players are in her class. Earlier this year Gray-Lawson added athletic director to her duties.
Tech’s athletic director saw resilience when the Bulldogs fell behind early in this year’s title game.
“All the kids who struggled at the beginning of the game, they were the ones who would come through,” Gray-Lawson said. “It was beautiful basketball to know they overcome adversity every time. I was able to put those awards around their necks. They were smiling. They were happy. For me that was a really special moment.”
What’s next for Oakland Tech?
When they returned to campus the Monday after the title game, players wore their jerseys and signed autographs for classmates. A fourth state title trophy will soon be placed in the school’s main foyer. The school is also working on a public celebration so the broader Oakland community can celebrate the team’s accomplishment.
“It’s been crazy,” Gray-Lawson said of the community reaction. “A lot of people have reached out. We got a lot of love on KMEL. I’m super appreciative of where we are right now.”
“To see them in the classroom and know the things that have transpired in their lives and see them perform on the court is a whole different feeling,” she said. “This championship brought us closer. We showed we can push through adversity. And that’s what Tech has always stood for.”
Marina Tanaka-Wong and Julia Basch, the lone seniors from the 2019 title team, will graduate with two state titles, three Northern California titles and an undefeated record in the CIF playoffs. Every other player from this year’s championship team is expected to return next year.
Now Hurt, who has coached seven seasons at Tech, wants to take the Bulldogs to the next level, the Division I state tournament bracket. He made that clear in a press conference after the championship game.
“Just so everyone in the room is clear, we’re a D-1 school. We should be with the D-1 teams,” said Hurt, surrounded by his players. “We haven’t lost a CIF game since 2018. You need to put us where we deserve to be.”