Junior Ballard bounced up and down in the locker room, shaking the anxiety from his arms and legs.
To his right, Dathan Satchell lay on the floor, his body twisted and contorted into a pretzel. His was stretching a muscle somewhere on his 6-foot-3 frame, but also keeping his mind busy.
No one would blame Modesto Christian’s leading scorers for being a bit jumpy before the start of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I final against state-ranked Sheldon.
Before this season, they’d never played in a high school game with such high stakes.
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Ballard arrived at the private-school power by way of Lathrop High, where he blossomed into the one of the Stanislaus District’s top scoring guards. He accepted a 30-day sit-out penalty for the chance to play “big boy” basketball.
Satchell spent his sophomore season at the end of the bench, unavailable to his team because of grades. He was ineligible, a next-level talent stuck in neutral.
Together, Ballard and Satchell collaborated on one of the most dramatic shots in Sac-Joaquin Section finals history. With 10 seconds remaining, Ballard launched a 35-foot moon shot that grabbed nothing but net, beating the shot clock buzzer and the Huskies, 60-56.
The Division I title is the fourth in program history and second in three years, and confirmed Modesto Christian’s place atop the section’s pecking order. The Crusaders (28-3) have won a section-record 19 banners, but needed a miracle shot to defeat Sheldon (26-5) for a fifth straight time in their budding rivalry.
The Crusaders’ leading scorer, Ballard hadn’t made a field goal until the fourth quarter and was swatted on the play before his buzzer-beater.
After Satchell’s drive stalled along the wing, he turned and dished to Ballard, who lost track of time and space. He thought the shot clock was off. As it ticked closer and closer to zero, Ballard dribbled backwards until he was right of the Pacific Tigers’ logo.
“I just thought there was 17 seconds left, so I was going to go (isolation),” Ballard said, “and then I heard my teammate (Michael Pearson) say shoot it.”
Ballard launched, arcing his shot over the hand of Dale Currie and toward the rafters. The ball fell perfectly through the rim; an improbable shot even a deft shot-maker couldn’t believe. Ballard turned toward the fans seated court side, his eyes wide and mouth agape.
“As a basketball player, you practice those kinds of shots, but not that one,” Ballard said. “That one – I just let it go, I just let it go. I don’t know what happened. I really don’t. It’s crazy.”
Ballard added: “At first, I was like, ‘Yeah!’ Then I looked at the clock and it wasn’t zeroes, so I was like we have to calm down, we have to, because they’re coming right back at us. I was just trying to get my guys to calm down.”
Currie raced the length of the court and was fouled with 2 seconds left and a chance to send the game into overtime.
Only he missed the front-end of a one-and-one.
"That shot that he made," Currie said Ballard. "Wow. And me going to the free throw line, with everyone on my back, that was my time to be clutch, and I didn't do it."
Williams grabbed the rebound and closed the victory form the free-throw line.
“We knew weren’t going to destroy them and they weren’t going to destroy us,” Modesto Christian coach Brice Fantazia said. “It was going to go back and forth. We had to stick with the game plan, and you hope your players make more plays than they do."
Ballard didn’t convert his first field goal until there was 4:56 left in the fourth. Instead, he spent most of the evening chasing Currie, a lightning-quick guard with an endless tank.
Ballard finished with 10 points on just 2 of 9 shooting. The details matter little, though.
One shot may define his section final debut, but he’ll remember the energy expended shadowing Sheldon's top player. Currie was held scoreless over the final 6:26.
“I take pride in my ‘D.' I try to be the best defender I can be,” Ballard said. "I wanted him. It’s in my nature. That’s how I was brought up. Getting scored on you, you should take it personal. It’s like letting someone just walk into your house — that’s not going to happen."
Satchell finished with nine points, five rebounds and the game’s biggest assist, while Williams paced the Crusaders with 13 points and eight boards. Williams beat the buzzer in the second and third quarters, both times giving the Crusaders the lead.
“I knew it was going to come down to the last seconds,” Williams said.
Sheldon hasn’t beaten Modesto Christian in the MaxPreps era (0-5), but didn’t back down from the challenge.
Behind bursts of speed from Currie and the length of 6-foot-9 center Chris Wreidt (nine points, 10 rebounds), the Huskies began the game with a 10-2 blitz. Currie’s layup on the break forced Fantazia to burn a timeout.
By then, Modesto Christian had gone nearly five minutes between points.
The Crusaders charged out of the break, outscoring the Huskies 14-2 over the final three minutes. Williams triggered the run with a shot off the glass, and then capped the quarter with a kickout to Pearson in the corner.
Pearson’s shot was pure, giving Modesto Christian a 16-12 lead after one.
The tit-for-tat would continue as the two state-ranked teams traded “oohs” and “aahs.”
Currie scored 10 of his game-high 24 points in the second quarter, including a corner 3 to give Sheldon a momentary lead, 29-28.
After turning Modesto Christian over near midcourt, Currie settled into the corner, burying a transition 3 in front Earvin Knoxx (seven points, two assists). He clapped in Knoxx’s face as if to say “game on.”
Game on, indeed.
Ballard pushed the Crusaders back into the lead. He tied the game with a free throw, and then with the half winding down, found Williams alone for a corner 3 of his own.
Both teams will enter the CIF State Open Division Tournament. Modesto Christian will likely be a No. 2 seed behind Salesian College Preparatory, the state’s top-ranked team.
“This bracket was ridiculous,” Fantazia said. “We have 19 section championships, but to win Division I is so much more special than winning any other division. You’re up there with the big boys, and we consider ourselves big boys.”