Modesto Christian junior Alex Merkviladze has commanded more minutes with his fearless approach to the game and high work rate. The 6-foot-8 junior had double-doubles in both the Crusaders' playoff wins.

M&M: How #3 Modesto Christian plans to deliver sweet victory at #2 Folsom

James Burns

For months, the Modesto Christian boys basketball team’s stable of talented post players has been unstable, ravaged by the flu and injury.

Senior forwards Aaron Murphy and Tsotne Tsardsidse, along with rising junior Alex Merkviladze have each missed chunks of time with one ailment or another. Some may point to that inconsistency on the low block as a compromising force in the Crusaders' fall from the Cal-Hi Sports state ranking.

Modesto Christian's Aaron Murphy had 19 points in a victory over Capital Christian in the quarterfinal round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I tournament.

Not third-year coach Brice Fantazia.

He believes his team’s post is a source of strength as the program stares down a second straight Sac-Joaquin Section Division I title and third in four years, even as injuries continue to be a concern. The third-ranked Crusaders will look to Murphy and Merkviladze to set a physical tone in a semifinal clash at second-seeded Folsom on Wednesday evening.

Modesto Christian headlines a night of basketball that features seven of the top-10 teams listed in the final regular-season large- and small-school polls. Also playing are:

Division III: No. 4 Manteca and No. 1 Weston Ranch, and No. 3 Central Catholic and No. 2 Wood.

Division IV: No. 4 Ripon at No. 1 Liberty Ranch, and No. 3 West Campus and No. 2 Sonora.

Division V: No. 4 Ripon Christian at No. 1 Brookside Christian, and No. 3 Sacramento Adventist at No. 2 Argonaut.

Division VI: No. 8 Turlock Christian at No. 4 Big Valley Christian.

“It’s not just the points,” Fantazia said of Murphy and Merviladze’s influence on Wednesday’s game, “but anchoring our defense, rebounding the ball and being physical. I think that’s going to be important. Our guards are doing a better job of getting them the ball, and that gives them (Murphy and Merkviladze) more energy in terms of attacking the glass.”

Tsardsidse, a 6-foot-8 Georgian international, will likely miss the rest of the season with a severe ankle injury. He rolled his ankle in the regular-season finale at Tracy following a dunk after landing on a player’s foot. Tsardsidse has missed the Crusaders’ playoff wins over Chavez of Stockton and Capital Christian.

“He’s probably done for the season,” Fantazia said. “He’s had ankle problems all year and in the past. He’s still in practice with the guys; being a senior and talking to the younger guys. I imagine it’s got to be hard for him.”

The Crusaders will fill his void with another lanky Georgian  international. Merkviladze has been a revelation this season, commanding more and more minutes with a fearless demeanor and high work rate.

Merkviladze, who is beginning to field Division I interest, has been a factor in some of the Crusaders’ biggest games, including a showdown with state No. 1 Salesian at the Lyn Basa-Merza Classic at Valley Christian High (San Jose) on Dec. 22. Playing without Murphy, who was sidelined with the flu, Modesto Christian pushed unbeaten Salesian to overtime in a 61-56 loss. Merkviladze had 16 points and 13 rebounds in that loss. 

He also had 19 points and 14 rebounds against Chavez in the opening round of the D-I section tournament and 15 points and 10 rebounds in a 29-point victory over Capital Christian in the quarterfinal round.

“He’s ready for it,” Fantazia of his opportunity to play more in the wake of Tsardsidse’s injury. “He’s wanted a bigger role. Every game he’s stepped up. Every time we’ve needed him to, he’s stepped up We have full confidence in him. We’d love to have Tsotne — he’s our best defensive player around the basket — but Alex and Aaron will fill that void.”

Here’s another crucial component for the surging Crusaders: Murphy, a springy 6-foot-7 forward committed to UC Davis, is finally healthy. Nagged by an ankle injury this season and a bout with the flu, Murphy has been rejuvenated by the postseason. He gashed Capital Christian for 19 points.

“From the jump last game, you could tell he’s full of energy and sprinting the floor,” Fantazia said. “Defensively and offensively, he was getting after it. That’s what we need from a kid going to UC Davis.”

Modesto Christian forwards Aaron Murphy (right) and Alex Merkviladze pose near a school logo at the school's varsity baseball diamond. Murphy and Merkviladze lead the Crusaders into a Sac-Joaquin Section Division I semifinal game at Folsom on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019.

Murphy and Merkviladze will have their hands full with Folsom’s big-bodied DeShawn Lynch, a 6-8, 255-pound bruiser on the low block. The junior leads the Sierra Foothill League champions in scoring at 14 points per game.

“He’s one the better bigs we’ve faced,” Fantazia said. “You’re not going to move him on the block, and he’s much more athletic than people give him credit for.”

Merkviladze accepts the challenge.

“I’m not scared of anyone,” he said during a lunchtime photo shoot. “You got to have that mentality, right?”

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