The Modesto Christian boys basketball team led by seven points with a little over two minutes left against Salesian, the No. 3 team in the nation, in the CIF State NorCal Semifinals on Saturday.
Then, the lead was down to four.
The Crusaders let a nine-point lead slip away in the fourth quarter against Sheldon in the Sac-Joaquin Section title game a week ago and lost.
Was it going to happen again?
Not this time as the Crusaders beat previously unbeaten Salesian, 56-55 to advance to Tuesday’s NorCal Final, where they will face none other than Sheldon, which beat De La Salle, 60-53.
MC coach Brice Fantazia called two timeouts in the last 90 seconds of the game.
“He told us to hold it under control and for the guards to keep their heads up and be patient and wait for somebody to come to the ball,” senior forward Aaron Murphy said. “There was no need to rush anything.”
Murphy and junior forward Alex Merkviladze both made baskets in the paint and Earv Knox secured the win with a free throw with under 10 seconds left.
The celebration was on for the Crusaders (27-7) and their fans who made the 90-minute trek up to the small town that borders Berkeley to the north.
“All the happiness I have ever endured in my life came out with one big ‘Yeah!’ scream,” Murphy said. “It was awesome.”
Fantazia walked into a rambunctious locker room after the win with a message to his players.
“We got revenge on them for earlier this year (MC lost in overtime to Salesian (31-1) on Dec. 22),” Fantazia told the team. “Now we are going to get revenge on Sheldon.”
The rematch is on as the two will battle for a spot in Saturday’s Open Division Championship. The NorCal title game is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. on Tuesday at Cosumnes River College.
“We are going to be in a hostile environment in Sacramento,” Fantazia said. “Whoever weathers the storm will advance to the state championship.”
Murphy had 18 points and eight rebounds while senior guard Dathan Satchell had 10 and freshman guard Devin Day added nine.
“I knew that every possession could cost us the game so I had to bring my energy, my mindset, and everything that contributes to a win,” Murphy said. “It’s not like I am going to do this again. I am a senior. I am going to college next year. I am trying to keep everyone alive and locked in.”
Each team had an 8-0 run in the first half but MC trailed by four at intermission.
Fantazia credited his assistant coaches for making adjustments during the break as MC came out in the third quarter on a 15-2 run.
Against Sheldon, the Crusaders will have to adjust with the return of Huskies junior Marcus Bagley, who missed the entire postseason until playing the victory Saturday against De La Salle. He had 10 points.
“He rebounds and defends,” Murphy said. “He’s a great player and we have to go out there and match his intensity and energy so we can pull out the win.
MC won the section title in 2018 but Sheldon made it to the state title game. Can the Crusaders do the same thing?
“It ended working out being us and Sheldon like everyone though,” Fantazia said. “Now it’s time to go to work.”