Modesto Christian High point guard Mike Pearson waved off the substitute waiting at the scorer’s table.
Pearson had just forced Tracy into a turnover late in the third quarter and could sense a run coming.
“Leave me in,” he told second-year coach Brice Fantazia, who was in no position to protest. Fantazia pulled the reserve back, and in the process, ushered in an 87-69 victory for the Crusaders, ranked seventh in the state.
Pearson scored 10 of his game-high 25 points in the final stanza, burning many of his hometown friends as Modesto Christian locked up a berth in Saturday’s championship game at the 18th annual Holiday Hoop Classic.
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Pearson didn’t come off the floor until there was 30.8 seconds left in the game. He left to a standing ovation from the bench.
“I was having a lot of fun and wanted to stay out there,” Pearson said. “It’s Tracy, my hometown. I just wanted to play and win the game for us. I know a lot of these guys. They’re all friends from back in the day.”
In two seasons, Pearson has developed a reputation as an assassin, a player with a unique ability to knock down shots in the final seconds of possessions, quarters and halves.
On Thursday, he closed the first and second quarters with 3-pointers for the Crusaders, winners of six straight.
“You just have to have that confidence, knowing you’re going to make those shots,” he said.
Pearson made all types of shots against the Bulldogs, a team that matched Modesto Christian’s length and athleticism but had no answer for its depth. Pearson sliced through the lane, changing hands in flight to avoid the block. He pulled up on the wing, and of course, he was locked in from range.
The Crusaders (9-1) will face San Joaquin Memorial in the final.
Tip is 7:45 p.m.
San Joaquin Memorial topped state-ranked Clovis West in a thrilling all-Fresno County semifinal. Touted sophomore Jalen Green, a player who has been compared to Kobe Bryant, scored 46 points in the win.
“It means everything,” said Fantazia, who waded through a sea of well-wishers that included program legends Jairol Red and Reeves Nelson. “We’re one step closer to winning the tournament and face another good team tomorrow.”
After a slow start, Pearson and the Crusaders warmed to a boil.
Tracy led by as many as eight, but Modesto Christian tilted the court in its favor with an 8-0 run to close the first half.
“We had to relax,” said Pearson, who scored six points in the final three minutes, including a buzzer-beating 3 over former AAU teammate Lamont Couch.
“I’ve been telling people he’s the best sophomore point guard in Northern California,” Fantazia said. “If people weren’t starting to believe it, they’re starting to see it. He’s so explosive, and tonight …
“He was just ridiculous.”
He wasn’t alone.
Tyler Williams and Tsotne Tsardsidse registered double-doubles for Modesto Christian, which outscored the Bulldogs 49-31 over the final 16 minutes.
Williams tallied 15 points and 11 rebounds, his second straight double-double. He scored nine of the team’s first 12 points.
Tsardsidse’s maturation continued in a showdown with Tracy’s Isiah Hawthorne, another 6-foot-8 prospect holding many of the same scholarship offers as Modesto Christian’s Georgian import.
Tsardsidse had 14 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks, and helped plunge the dagger into Tracy. He answered Hawthorne’s 3-pointer in the fourth quarter with a one-handed stuff on the ensuing possession. Tsardsidse received a ball near the free-throw line and drove the lane, blowing past Hawthorne.
On his way back down the floor, Tsardsidse winked at Fantazia — a show of confidence the coach hadn’t seen from the young international.
“I’ll be the first one to admit that he hasn’t been killing it to start the year,” Fantazia said. “He’s had some big games, but he took that matchup a little personal too. That dunk was a statement. He was ready for the moment tonight.”
Dathan Satchell had 12 points, including a step-back 3 that pushed the Crusaders’ lead to 76-66. Sharpshooter Baljot Sahi had nine points off the bench, all on 3-pointers.
The game gave fans a taste of things to come.
Modesto Christian will move into the Tri-City Athletic League at the start of the 2018-19 school year. There, the Crusaders are expected to be pushed by Tracy, St. Mary’s and Lincoln, which will play Campolindo in Saturday’s fifth-place game.
“I’d be lying if I said these kids didn’t know that it’s Tracy and it’s going to be a league game next year,” Fantazia said. “They did want to make a statement.”
Pearson is one of five Tracy residents on the Crusader roster, a list that includes the Murphy brothers, Gabe and Aaron.
That familiarity led to a choppy start. Modesto Christian turned the ball over fives times in the first quarter, struggled to clear the defensive glass, and found itself in a 21-17 hole. The Bulldogs closed the quarter on an 8-3 run.
Pearson wasn’t fazed. Instead, he dug in, refusing to leave the floor. Fantazia was rewarded for trusting Pearson’s instincts.
“I trust him,” Fantazia said. “If he says leave me in the game, I’m going to leave him in the game.”