From the first day of practice, there was no doubt Modesto Christian’s season was going to be defined by the chemistry that would develop between twin towers Anthony Townes and Robinson Idehen.
If the 6-foot-6 senior Townes and 6-9 junior Idehen could find on-court synergy, the Crusaders would have the best inside tandem in Northern California.
The upside would be limitless, and – ‘scuse me, Jimi – but on Tuesday night the Crusaders kissed the sky.
Idehen had 20 points and seven rebounds, while Townes had 17 points and 11 rebounds as MC advanced to the NorCal Open Division championship game with a 53-48 victory at Serra.
The Crusaders (30-3) came back from a 10-point deficit in the third quarter to set up a meeting with Bishop O’Dowd for the NorCal title Saturday at 8 p.m. at Sleep Train Arena. It will be the third Open Division meeting in as many years between the teams, with MC ending O’Dowd’s run in 2013 and O’Dowd returning the favor last year.
“If this team beats O’Dowd, that puts them way ahead of the team I played on,” said Crusaders coach Richard Midgley, the point guard on the 2000-01 MC team that reached the state Division I title game – also the last Crusaders team to win 30 games.
“This team had has a more difficult road. We’ve won two road games in the Open Division in the opposing team’s gym. That’s an incredible credit to our players.”
It wasn’t easy, of course. Nothing has come easy for MC this season. Idehen didn’t become transfer-eligible until January, and as much as he and Townes pushed each other in practice, finding on-court compatibility in games took some time.
“It was difficult at first because we didn’t mesh on the court,” Townes said. “But going at each other in practice, we developed a friendship and then we started cooking in games. I love him. He’s a great brother.”
Townes is used to this kind of pressure. Tuesday was the sixth Open Division game he’d played as a visitor in the last three seasons. But Idehen is used to playing in front of intimate gatherings as a member of Spain’s under-16 national team as well as in club games in England.
Nothing in those gyms could have prepared him for Serra’s gym, which was known as The Jungle about 15 years before Guns N’ Roses rolled out the welcome mat.
“This was all new to me,” Idehen said. “I do have an idea of how big this is and what we’re doing, and tonight was great with this big crowd and all. I’ve never played in front of a crowd like this.”
It obviously didn’t bother him, but MC still took some time to get rolling. The Crusaders were victimized repeatedly by the Padres’ constant-motion, back-cutting offense and trailed 29-23 at halftime.
A key to how out-of-sync the Crusaders were in the first half? Despite the decided height advantage, they outrebounded Serra only 12-11 in the opening 16 minutes. In the second half, MC dominated the boards 22-5.
Still, the Padres started quickly in the second half, grabbing a 35-25 lead with 5:55 left in the third before MC found its pace. Townes and Idehen had six points apiece in a 15-4 run that gave the Crusaders their first lead at 40-39 with 1:11 left in the third quarter.
The difference in the run was MC’s ability to feed the post. The Crusaders had 15 turnovers on the post-feed alone against Monte Vista, and only seven against the Padres.
“After that game we worked very hard on have the guards dribbling down farther to create a better angle for the entry pass,” Idehen said. “We got it done tonight.”
The MC defense, which limited Serra (23-6) to 19 second-half points, took over from there, allowing only five points in the final 7:20. Idehen gave the Crusaders a 49-46 lead on a put-back with 2:24 lead, and Jordan Hollins-Buckner answered a Serra basket with a back-cut layup off a pass from Christian Ellis for a 51-48 lead with 1:26 left.
The Crusaders defense made one more stand, and Ellis worked the clock, driving hard to the basket as the shot clock wound down. His floater missed, but Townes grabbed the rebound and scored with 18.6 seconds left to clinch the win and take all the air out of the Serra crowd.
“We’re fighting adversity and staying together,” Midgley said. “We’re making plays when we have to, which makes these the best kind of wins.”