Modesto Christian entered Friday night’s NorCal Open Division basketball game at Monte Vista as well-prepared defensively as any Crusaders’ team in memory.
When the host Mustangs called out a play, the Crusaders echoed the call and adjusted their defense accordingly. When Monte Vista made a substitution, MC not only knew that player’s name, but where he likely was going to line up on the floor.
If their defense had been any tighter, the Crusaders would have been able to read the number on the inside of Monte Vista’s undergarments.
And Modesto Christian needed every bit of that preparation and effort to squeeze out a 47-44 victory, holding the Mustangs scoreless in the final two minutes of the 32-minute emotional roller coaster.
“It disturbed them that we knew what they were running every possession, and I wanted them to know that we knew what they were running,” said MC coach Richard Midgley, whose 29-3 Crusaders will face Serra in Tuesday’s second round.
No. 6 Serra stunned No. 3 Moreau Catholic 79-51, while No. 4 Folsom beat El Cerrito 78-75 and No. 1 Bishop O’Dowd advanced with a 76-55 victory over St. Francis on the other side of the bracket.
“We did a bigger scout for this game than any game ever, just because of the matchup,” Midgley said. “Monte Vista gets 90 percent of their points off their halfcourt offense, so if we took that away we’d have a shot to win.”
But the Mustangs (27-4) appeared equally prepared defensively, especially in the way they protected the low post. Modesto Christian committed 19 turnovers, with nearly all coming in the half-court set.
That head-to-head between two well-prepared teams kept the game close, with the Mustangs matching their largest lead at 38-35 in the final six minutes. With MC badly needing a basket, Jeff Wu banked a straightaway three-pointer to tie the game.
“I’m the shooter, and the coaches kept telling me to shoot,” said Wu, who led MC with 17 points. “There was a time there I needed to step up and I’m happy I was able to do that.”
That was the game’s biggest shot until the final two minutes, when Monte Vista – nursing a 44-43 lead with 1:27 left – had a chance to pad the margin. But senior shooting guard Jeff Mitu, who led all scorers with 21 points, missed the front end of a one-and-one.
Moments later, Wu was fouled on a jumper and made both shots for a 45-44 lead, and MC needed one more big stop.
That’s when Anthony Townes took center stage, tipping away a pass near midcourt and driving in for a thunderous dunk. It pushed the margin to 47-44 with 50 seconds left.
“We had to get a bucket there, and I had to step up and be the leader – anyway I can, whether grabbing a rebound or getting a block,” said Townes, who had 16 points and 13 rebounds. “We had to change the momentum.”
Again, the focus turned to the MC defense, and Monte Vista’s final shots from the perimeter weren’t close.
Just like that, Modesto Christian made history. Yes, the Crusaders have had to go on the road for first-round game in each of the three years the CIF has sponsored Open Division play, but they stand alone as the only boys team to have won a game in Open play in all three events.
“The work these kids put-in year-round reflects in the biggest games,” Midgley said. “Maybe we wanted it a little more, even though they have great players, and that was enough.”
There was a volatile moment in the third quarter – one that kept Monte Vista coach Nick Jones yelling at the officials 15 minutes after the final horn.
With the Mustangs leading 29-26 after a 9-2 run in the third quarter, they appeared to have the Crusaders stopped on offense when an airball against a dwindling shot clock turned into a scrum under the MC basket.
The shot clock should have expired, but the hometown clock operator reset it and the officials missed the reset.
Robinson Idehen grabbed the loose ball and scored, and Jones was hit with a technical. Wu hit both free throws for a 30-29 lead, and MC had dodged the Monte Vista run.
“Our guys battled, and I felt the refs took the game out of their hands,” Jones said. “I thought we got jobbed, yes. Everybody in the gym knew there was a shot clock violation except the three refs, and for me to get the technical when they blew the call was not right.”
His team shook off the technical enough to regain the lead and had a chance to control the game at the end with free throws, but instead it’s Modesto Christian playing the role of the Road Warriors for the third straight season.
“This is great and let’s keep it going all the way to state,” Townes said. “I believe in this team - that we can do this.”