With the ball in his right hand and a defender hugging his hip, Tyler Williams drove across the lane, drawing the attention of the opposing bench.
“Drive! Drive!” barked the Bellarmine College Prep coaching staff.
With a quick stop and spin, the Modesto Christian High senior abandoned the drive in favor of a fallaway jumper that collected comfortably in the bottom of the net.
A superior athlete who often plays above the rim, Williams proved he has a whole lot more in his bag, lifting the third-seeded Crusaders to a 66-53 victory over No. 6 Bellarmine in the first round of the CIF State Northern California Open Division tournament.
“I had to step it up and get everyone going, because this is my last year and I want to go out with a bang,” said Williams, who collected his 113th career victory, two shy of Christian Ellis’ all-time mark. “I don’t want the season to end."
On a night full of upsets across the state, a small senior class kept the Crusaders in the hunt for the program’s third CIF State championship.
Williams finished with a team-high 21 points, eight rebounds and a key blocked shot in the final minutes. He triggered a decisive 14-3 run to close the third quarter with a drive along the baseline, and then scored or assisted on four of Modesto Christian’s first five field goals in the fourth quarter.
As news of stunning upsets to the state's top two teams, No. 1 Salesian and No. 2 Mater Dei, trickled in, Williams soaked in the energy inside Crusader gymnasium.
A standing-room only crowd gathered for the elite matchup, including players and coaches from across the Stanislaus District, along with college scouts from St. Mary’s, Chico State, San Francisco, UC Davis and Cal Poly.
Williams earned the spotlight — and maybe a scholarship offer, too — willing Modesto Christian (29-3) into a second round showdown with No. 2 Bishop O’Dowd (26-5) of Oakland. The game will be played Tuesday at Laney College at 7 p.m.
O’Dowd pulled away from Capital Christian, 78-67.
“He’s taken his game to another level right now,” Fantazia said. “I think he’s realized when Junior and (Dathan Satchell) and couple other guys are struggling, he’s got to become the man. Just like in games when he’s struggling and they’ve got to become the man.
"He stepped up huge tonight — defensively, rebounding, got a bucket whenever we needed it. He was big time. I know there are a couple of colleges waiting; they want to see more before they offer him. I don’t know what they’re waiting for, because he was amazing tonight."
Fellow senior Junior Ballard, a Lathrop transfer, helped plunge the dagger into the Bells, the Central Coast Section champions.
For the fourth straight game, the Cal Poly-bound Ballard was matched with a talent also ticketed for the next level.
On Friday, he drew sharpshooting guard Jake Wojcik, a fourth-year varsity starter headed to Siena College in New York. Wojcik, the son of former San Jose State men’s basketball coach Dave Wojcik, had 17 points on four 3-pointers, including a trey from 10 feet inside the midcourt stripe to make it 31-23 in the third.
Bellarmine started the half on an 8-0 blitz.
“We were tight and I think we finally realized if we lose, it’s over,” Fantazia said. “We started playing.”
Ballard scored 18 of his 20 points in the second half and punctuated the victory with a two-handed flush in the final minute. The slam unraveled the Bells (24-4), whose coach Patrick Schneider had to be separated from Fantazia after the game.
More important than the points, Ballard’s defense forced Bellarmine to look elsewhere for its offense. Wojcik was held scoreless for the final 14 minutes, 25 seconds of his brilliant prep career. Ballard conceded just one of Wojcik’s five field goals.
Kendall Stubblefield scored 10 of the Bells' 13 fourth-quarter points and finished with a team-high 18.
“Junior reminded me a lot of Christian Ellis tonight,” Fantazia said of The Bee's 2016 All-District Player of the Year. "He struggled offensively in the first half, but didn’t let it affect his defense. When his offensive got going in the second half, you saw what happened."
Modesto Christian won without major offensive contributions from Satchell (four points), Mike Pearson (three), Gabe (six) and Aaron (five) Murphy.
Instead, Fantazia turned to junior transfer Earv Knoxx to orchestrate the offense and leaned heavily on Williams and Ballard.
“Coach says refuse to lose,” Williams said, “and that’s what we did."