MODESTO — The Modesto Christian Crusaders had just beaten Archbishop Mitty of San Jose 77-55 Wednesday night to begin the CIF State Open Basketball Championships. Then they learned Sheldon built a big lead against Clovis West.
Had Sheldon won – MC beat the Huskies in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I final last weekend – the No. 3-seeded Crusaders would have returned to their homecourt for the Regional Semifinals on Saturday night. Alas, the night wasn’t perfect.
Clovis West rallied from behind to win, thus putting MC (28-5) on Highway 99 to meet coach Vance Walberg and the No. 2 Golden Eagles (30-1).
The twist of fate comes with the territory for Modesto Christian, which now has a record 20 section banners hanging on its gym walls. The only thing this storied program hasn’t done is cut the net after winning an Open Division title.
So far, the Crusaders are on track.
“Talent doesn’t win the Open Division. Everyone has talent,” MC coach Brice Fantazia said. “You’ve got to be the toughest team mentally and physically, and I thought we were tonight.”
The Crusaders’ win over a typically battle-tested Mitty team (23-6) demonstrated MC’s focus. They could have been thrown off course by the two quick fouls against inside force Manasse Itete and a sluggish start on offense by Jamari Phillips.
Fantazia looked to his bench and found some important early-game minutes by 6-foot-7 Drevon Johnson. Senior point guard Alex Argandar, an unsung hero this season, put together another solid floor game. MC, with Itete sitting, began its long and gradual pull-away.
Argandar buried back-to-back triples and MC – with Phillips (23.8-point average) still scoreless – built an 18-11 lead after one quarter. That was bad news for Mitty, because Phillips and B.J. Davis soon would get rolling.
Tim Kennedy, the uber-successful coach in his 14th season for Mitty, understood the venue and the opponent. The Monarchs have ended their season in Modesto Christian’s cozy gym twice in the last four years.
“You’ve gotta come with force. They (MC) were ready to roll. We didn’t knock down shots,” Kennedy said. “They had their foot on the gas the whole time.”
Mitty desperately tried to avoid a back-and-forth transition game. Modesto Christian wins such matchups almost every time. Once again, Itete, 6-10 Prince Oseya and company controlled the paint.
The Monarchs, one of the few teams to walk onto the MC hardwood with a resume nearly as impressive as the Crusaders’, needed torrid shooting and a measured pace to notch the upset. Easier said than done against the home team.
Davis found the range in the third quarter and finished with a game-high 28 points. Phillips warmed to the chase after halftime en route to 20 points. A Davis slam and an Argandar layup, the result of consecutive turnovers, jumped the lead to 49-31 late in the third quarter. Mitty scrapped but didn’t threaten thereafter.
“They ’re a handful,” Kennedy praised. ”They’re so deep at every spot.”
Argandar often gets lost amid the highlight reels filled each night by Phillips and Davis. His impact early in the game against Mitty, however, was hard to miss.
“Alex was outstanding tonight. He hit big shots, made great decisions and played great defense,” Fantazia said. “Alex lets them (Phillips and Davis) be them.”
Aidan Burke, a senior, ended his prep career with 13 points for Mitty. Isaiah Cabebe, another senior, had 12, and junior Derek Sangster finished with 11.
Fantazia called MC’s performance one of its best since he became coach in 2016. How the Crusaders won probably impressed him more than the win itself.
“Our approach tonight was to out-tough them,” Davis said. “Play harder than them. Get moving. Get them moving, and get the defense to breakdown.”
They must summon more of that Saturday night, only this time in a not-so-friendly environment.