The pedigree is so established, the comparisons between Modesto Christian High basketball and the rest of the Sac-Joaquin Section is moot.
At this point, after the Crusaders captured their 17th section crown in 19 years on Saturday by erasing an early 14-point deficit and topping Sacramento High 49-46 in the Division II final, the only fair comparisons might be to teams within the MC lineage.
Declaring one team the best of all time is far too subjective, but the standard for toughness always has been borne by the 2001 team that went all the way to the state Division I final, featuring 10-year NBA veteran Chuck Hayes inside and current coach Richard Midgley at the point.
So what do you say, coach? Can you call this the toughest Crusaders’ team?
“It’s hard to do,” Midgley said. “I don’t know the history of all the section wins, but I believe this was the toughest opponent we’ve ever played in any of those section wins. We weren’t favored. Sac High was ranked ahead of us. We’re usually the favorite.
“This is our best section final victory, coming against the best opponent and coming in D2. I’m very, very proud of the way they gutted it out.”
Modesto Christian, which will head into the Open Division of the NorCal playoffs with a 28-3 record, had 24 minutes to display its fortitude after falling behind the top-seeded Dragons 18-4 following an abysmal first quarter.
It was so bad that the 3-2 defense the Crusaders were using, which generally limits the opposition’s clean outside looks, was burned for four three-pointers. The margin remained 14 points, 22-8 with 6:26 left, before MC found its sea legs.
The rally was spurred by the defense. The same alignment that was giving up points in bunches early began to get stops, and kept the momentum going by switching between the zone and man-to-man.
The Crusaders embarked on an 11-0 run, with all points coming in the paint, and halftime couldn’t come soon enough for the Dragons (26-5), whose lead was down to 25-23 at the break.
“We started slow and it took us a while to score a point,” Midgley said. “Credit our team and our leadership for sticking through it. We always have a game plan of getting touches inside and attacking their pressure, and we started doing that better toward the end of the first quarter.”
The zone also guaranteed that Sacramento wasn’t going to get clean passing lanes to feed its big man, 6-foot, 7-inch junior Solomon Young. MC put 6-6 Anthony Townes at the top of the zone and had 6-8 Robinson Idehen at the back.
Having Townes away from the basket on defense hurt MC’s rebounding early, which meant someone else had to crash the boards and limit the Dragons’ second chances. Junior guard Christian Ellis filled the bill, grabbing 13 rebounds to more than double the total of any of the Dragons.
“We were down, so I was just looking to rebound and get out in transition,” Ellis said. “I wanted to create some fast breaks on the other end.”
A three-pointer by Jeff Wu gave MC its first lead, 30-28 with 5:23 left in the third quarter, but the Crusaders never built a lead large enough to breathe easy.
The largest margin was five points on two occasions, with the last a 46-41 lead when Jordan Hollins-Buckner hit a short jumper with 1:20 left. Sacramento was not done, and when Stephen Matthews hit a three-pointer with 23 seconds remaining the Dragons were within a point, 47-46.
The Dragons were in foul mode, and Ellis swished two chances with 21 seconds left to boost the margin back to three.
MC, which spent the last three quarters getting big defensive stops, needed one more, and they went back to man-to-man defense.
“We had to focus on all their guys,” Midgley said. “We just didn’t want to give up the three. There were no specifics in our defense, except that the players knew the situation and knew we didn’t want to give up the three-pointer.”
The Dragons did get off two shots from outside the arc in the final 13 seconds, but neither was a clean look and neither was close. The second, an air ball, was deflected out of bounds as the buzzer sounded.
Townes finished with 13 points, while Hollins-Buckner and Wu each scored 10 apiece. Savon Hines led Sacramento with 12 points.
“I was very proud of the effort,” Midgley said. “It was a grind-out and probably wasn’t the prettiest game for the spectators, but we’re proud of the way we rebounded and defended. We willed ourselves to a win.”