It turns out the Oakland High Wildcats boys basketball team has, as Oakland Tech fans are fond of saying, some dog in ’em, too.

Ten days after admitting his team had been pushed around in three losses to Oakland Tech earlier this season, Oakland High School coach Orlando Watkins’ Wildcats found an answer when it mattered most. Tuesday night at a sold out Laney College gymnasium—with an audience including Mayor Sheng Thao, Mistah F.A.B., and other luminaries—Oakland High prevailed over Tech’s bulldogs 77-61 in the highly anticipated rematch

Oakland High star player Money Williams scored a game-high 25 points in the first ever Northern California title game contested between Oakland schools. Oakland High advances to Friday’s state Division 3 championship game at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, where the Wildcats face Buena High of Ventura at 4 p.m.

Oakland High vs Oakland Tech Norcal Divsion 3 Title Game 62
Oakland High School’s boys basketball team celebrates their victory in the Northern Regional Championship game Tuesday evening at Laney College. Credit: Amir Aziz

“After our last loss to them, the guys’ heads were all down,” Watkins said of a 53-50 defeat to Tech in the CIF Oakland Section championship game Feb. 25, its third loss–all by three points or less–to the Oakland Athletic League rival this season. “I said, ‘Hey fellas, we just gotta go on a five-game winning streak. Money and those guys seem like they dialed in from there.”

Oakland High, which boasts NBA All-Star Damian Lillard among its alumni, is playing for its first boys basketball state title at any level. 

The Oakland Tech girls basketball team is also advancing to the state Division 1 championship after knocking off No. 1-seeded St. Mary’s of Stockton, 82-71, on Tuesday night. Tech will face Santiago of Corona at 6 p.m. Friday. 

The Tech girls are after their third consecutive state championship, but first at the Division I level.

The Town’s big game lived up to its hype

On Tuesday at Laney College, it took a thrilling Oakland High performance to flip one of the great rivalry series in Oakland basketball history. To accommodate more fans for the highly anticipated and unexpected fourth game, CIF Oakland Section Commissioner Franky Navarro moved the Northern California championship from Tech to the downtown community college. Even with the larger capacity (around 2,500 fans), many Oakland basketball supporters—some who purchased tickets—were left watching the game through the Laney gym windows, some scaling the walls for a better view as Mayor Sheng Thao gave a pre-game speech to fire up the crowd.

The riveting season series opened Jan. 20 at Tech, when Williams sank free throws with one second left to force overtime. Tech’s Omar Staples Jr. was too much in the end, and the Bulldogs prevailed 81-79. On February 8 at Oakland High, Tech secured the outright Oakland Athletic League title when Ahmaree Muhammad sank the game-deciding jumper (plus the foul) in a 61-59 Tech win. In the section title game, Staples again overpowered Oakland High defenders, leading Watkins to question publicly whether his team–despite all its talent–could withstand Tech’s toughness.

When Oakland High and Tech were placed in the Division 3 state tournament bracket (Tech as the No. 3 seed and Oakland High as the No. 9 seed), a chance at redemption became possible. But each team needed three wins to meet in the Northern California title game.

In first-round play, Oakland High thumped Ponderosa High and Tech comfortably defeated Urban High of San Francisco. When top seed Las Lomas was upset by Carlmont of Belmont, Oakland High had a second-round home game against the lowest seed in the bracket. In the second round, Tech edged visiting Lincoln High of San Francisco and Williams led Oakland High with 24 points to beat Carlmont. And in the third round, Tech defeated visiting Justin-Siena High of Napa and Oakland High topped The King’s Academy in Sunnyvale to set up the hometown rematch. 

As Laney filled to its capacity nearly 30 minutes before tipoff, most fans had no idea what to expect. McClymonds High coach Barry Bell wouldn’t make a prediction, pointing to his black and orange Warriors gear as his sole allegiance. Doug Simmons, a McClymonds High graduate and OUSD employee, thought Tech would have trouble beating the same team four times in a row. Reporter Joseph Dycus didn’t pick a winner, but thought one of these teams would pull out a large victory after the first three games were so tightly contested.

When Oakland High guard Jimon Campbell banked in a 3-pointer to open the scoring, all bets were off. Te’Shawn Gamble rose for a fast-break dunk and suddenly the Wildcats were in control. A Williams layup gave Oakland High a 10-point lead in the second quarter, but Dallas Sanford hit a 3-pointer to start a 7-0 Tech run and Oakland High’s lead shrank to 36-30 at halftime.

Tech’s Asher Kramer opened the second-half scoring by banking in a 3 of his own, and Tech kept Oakland High within striking distance. But when Gamble swatted a Staples layup attempt late in the third quarter, it was clear this night would be different from the three prior contests.

Money Williams lines up a free throw. Credit: Amir Aziz

‘I’ve been doing this for over 20 years. It’s very difficult to get here,” said Watkins, who credits Williams’ leadership since the third loss to Tech with helping turn around his team’s season. “You gotta have a little luck, and you’ve got to have talent. So this year it just broke our way.

“It’s all about wills, and our will was stronger than theirs today.”

Nick Lozito is a Sportswriter and designer whose work has appeared in The Oaklandside, Berkeleyside, KQED, San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications. He is a graduate of Oakland Technical High School and Sacramento State University.