One of the most versatile teams in Northern California meets one of the most balanced in the semifinal round of the CIF State Northern California Open Division tournament.
No. 3 Modesto Christian travels to Laney College in Oakland on Tuesday evening. There, the Crusaders (29-3) will tangle with No. 2 Bishop O’Dowd (26-5).
Tip is at 7 p.m.
The Dragons held off No. 7 Capital Christian with a well-rounded attack, 78-67.
Five players scored at least 13 points, including Elijah Hardy (14), Brendan Patrick (14), Naseem Gaskin (14), Ross Williams (14) and William Chavarin (13).
“We want to have a balanced scoring attack,” Dragons coach Lou Richie told The San Jose Mercury News, "and we want everyone on our team to have confidence."
Bishop O’Dowd led by as many as 19 points in the first half, but the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I semifinalists roared back into the fold with a 16-2 run.
“We didn’t fold, we jelled together as a team,” Hardy said. “We gutted it out as a team, and that’s all that matters. We’ll go on to the next one.”
Modesto Christian, the sixth-ranked team in Cal-Hi Sports’ state poll, advanced to the semifinal round with a runaway victory over Bellarmine College Prep of San Jose on Friday, 66-53.
Senior Tyler Williams was 10 of 11 from the floor and finished with a game-high 21 points. He also pulled down eight rebounds in his 113th career victory, two shy of tying former teammate Christian Ellis for the school’s all-time record.
Junior Ballard scored 18 of his 20 points in the second half and punctuated the victory with a two-handed slam in the final seconds. The dunk drew the ire of Bellarmine coach Patrick Schneider, who pulled his starters off the court with 37.7 seconds left.
Schneider barked down the sideline at Modesto Christian coach Brice Fantazia and the two had to be separated after the game. Schneider felt Fantazia should have responded in kind following his mass substitution.
Truth is: Modesto Christian’s bench is the last place to look for mercy.
The Crusaders’ strength is its depth.
On most nights, Fantazia looks down his bench at two 6-foot-8 Georgian internationals (Tsotne Tsardsidse and Alex Merkviladze), two players with Oakland Soldiers AAU credentials (Earn Knoxx and Aaron Murphy), and arguably the top 3-point shooter (Baljot Sani) in the Stanislaus District.
“Early in the year, I was trying to have my rotations figured out, when guys would go in and come out,” Fantazia said. "I decided to just go off of feel.”
That feel played out in a quarterfinal between section champions that grew more heated and tense with every possession.
Knoxx didn’t start against the Bells, the Central Coast Section Open Division king, but the junior transfer from Sacramento’s Luther Burbank High played significant minutes down the stretch.
Murphy also came off the bench, supplanting his older brother Gabe Murphy (six points) and Tsardsidse late in the game.
A fast-rising junior, the 6-foot-6 Murphy was instrumental in the Crusaders’ blistering third-quarter charge. His baseline drive gave the the Crusaders a 39-38 lead — the final lead change of the contest.
Modesto Christian trailed by as many as eight in the third quarter, but closed the frame on a 14-3 run.
On the go-ahead basket, Murphy bobbled a pass from Knoxx in the corner, forfeiting a wide-open shot. Instead, he collected the ball and drove the baseline, finishing above a crowd.
His length and athleticism helped combat Bellarmine’s Kendall Stubblefield, the Bells’ leading scorer and only threat in the fourth quarter.
Tsardsidse scored five points, all in the first half, including a straightaway 3 in the first quarter.
To be versatile and effective off the bench, Fantazia said it takes more than just talent. His players have suspended their egos, buying into a philosophy popularized by the reigning NBA champions.
"We have so much talent and our guys have bought in,” Fantazia said. "We talk about the Golden State Warriors, you never know whose night it might be, even coming off the bench. “Our guys have bought into that. They don’t gripe and they don’t pout. They’re happy for one another even when it’s not their night.”
Versatility versus balance: They can often be confused for one another, but on Tuesday, one will rise above the other.