Jamari Phillips poured in a game-high 26 points for the Crusaders, who pulled away from Gregori to open the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs. (Samantha Schmidt)

Good for a half: No. 3 Modesto Christian power prevails over No. 14 Gregori

Ron Agostini

MODESTO – The score stood 32-32 at halftime Friday night and screaming Gregori fans filled at least half of the Modesto Christian gym. An upset seemed possible.

Until the Crusaders got physical.

Modesto Christian pressed its default key – blunt inside power – to pull away for an entertaining 74-55 victory. Gregori’s season ended in tears but not in shame in the first round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I Tournament.

“We walked into this gym with no fear tonight,” Gregori coach Ryan Green said. “The game was tied and I think they (Modesto Christian) wondered a little what was going to happen.”

The proud Crusaders knew exactly what to do.

Despite a left wrist injury, Modesto Christian's 6-foot-6 sophomore Manasse Itete bullied Gregori in the low post during Friday's victory in the first round of Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs.

Modesto Christian (24-5), seeded No. 3, went inside to 6-foot-6 sophomore Manasse Itete to separate from Gregori. Itete (19 points) responded by scoring his team’s first 11 points of the third quarter on an assortment of layups, drop-steps and rebounds.

Itete did it all, in fact, while wincing in pain. He injured his left wrist in a fall late in the first quarter, yet still took advantage of the mismatch. Gregori never was within 13 points after his solo rally.

“He (Itete) was a beast for us,” Modesto Christian coach Brice Fantazia praised. “We wanted to go inside. That is our strength.”

From there, the Crusaders accelerated behind sophomore Jamari Phillips who combined way-out-there triples with determined drives for a game-high 26 points.

“I felt I had to take over for a spot,” Phillips said. “You got to pick me up before half-court.”

Phillips needed to be good because MC was shorthanded. BJ Davis, the team’s second-leading scorer, and reserve Elmo Wartson missed their second straight game due to what Fantazia described as “dealing with some personal stuff.”

Fantazia hopes Davis and Wartson will be available for the Crusaders’ quarterfinals game at home Monday night against Weston Ranch. The Valley Oak League champion Cougars, who edged Oak Ridge 75-73, twice have lost by double digits this season to Modesto Christian.

The Gregori-Modesto Christian matchup, featuring players who’ve been both opponents and teammates since grade school, delivered on the excitement. Kyle Monk supplied his usual pyrotechnics for 24 points to climax a storied four-year varsity career.

Not for a second was Monk intimidated by Modesto Christian. He seemingly dropped down from the rafters for a crash-tip of a missed triple and, to end the first half,  brought down those rafters with a booming game-tying 3-pointer.

Both Monk and running mate Kobe Nunes (12 points) were given a curtain call with 21 seconds left as the Gregori crowd stood and cheered. That duo contributed to three full-season Central California Athletic League titles, a run interrupted only by COVID.

“I have to be happy about it,” Monk said. “Instead of being sad that it’s gone, be happy that it happened.”

Nunes, who enrolled at Modesto Christian as a freshman before he transferred to Oakdale, gave Gregori two highlight-reel season alongside Monk. He didn’t score from the floor against MC, however, until late in the third quarter. Sound pressure by Crusader guard Alex Argandar kept Nunes in check.

“We knew they were going to bring it with two studs like Kyle and Kobe. We couldn’t let both of them go off,” Fantazia said. “I want to congratulate both of them. I’ve known them since they were in fifth grade. I hate that their last game had to be against us.”

Green regretted only the early minutes of the second half when his team couldn’t respond to MC’s strength. He’ll especially regret not coaching Monk again.

“Kyle went through a lot of bumps as a freshman and sophomore. It all paid off this season,” he said. “I’m proud of these guys. We are going to miss them.”