Crusaders' head coach Brice Fantazia consoles senior BJ Davis as the CIF Northern California Open Final wound down on Tuesday, March 7, 2023 (Samantha Schmidt).

One step short: Crusaders struggle against St. Joseph, falls in NorCal final

Ron Agostini

MODESTO – No matter the level of playoff basketball, one thing never changes: The end hits with stunning force.

Especially when it happens one step short of a state final.

Modesto Christian, often the distributor of season-ending papers, found itself on the wrong side Tuesday night. St. Joseph of Santa Maria, showing no scar tissue from a one-point loss to the Crusaders two months ago, emphatically eliminated the top-seeded home team 72-58 in the CIF Northern California Open title game.

There was precious little drama played out in front of about 1,500 at Modesto Junior College Gym. St. Joseph, one of the few teams to pound MC near the basket this season, controlled matters almost from start to finish.

 “I think we got their ‘A’ game. We did not play our best game,” Modesto Christian coach Brice Fantazia said. “We made a lot of mistakes tonight, uncharacteristic of us. It happens.”

 St. Joseph (28-6), the No. 3 seed, will meet Harvard-Westlake Saturday night for the open title at Golden 1 Center.  Harvard-Westlake defeated defending champion Centennial 80-61, which means both state finalists a year ago were cut down on the same tonight.

 Yes, the basketball gods can be capricious. And thankless.

Modesto Christian senior guard BJ Davis received hugs and handshakes from coaches and teammates as he was called to the bench in the final seconds. Davis finishes as arguably the best-ever guard at MC – arguments can be made about Richard Midgley and Adrian Oliver – but his career should continue to grow at San Diego State.

Modesto Christian's BJ Davis collides with St. Joseph's Caedin Hamilton mid-layup during the CIF Northern California Open Final on Tuesday, March 7, 2023 (Samantha Schmidt).

“He never lost a game on Sisk Road,” Fantazia said in reference to Davis' unbeaten record at Randy Anderson Gym.  “He didn’t play last season when we lost at home to Inderkum…The impact he made on our program was unbelievable.”

Davis closed his prep career with 27 points, nine higher than his average, but he often was forced into uncomfortable places by the Knights’ swarming defense.  During long stretches, he was MC’s only reliable threat on offense.

“They had an edge,” Davis said. “They lost by one (during the first game). If I had lost by one, I would definitely have a different mindset coming into the game.”

MC defeated St. Joseph 68-67 on a neutral court last January only because Davis exploded for 38 points.  The Crusaders trailed most of that night, too, and couldn’t twice the climb the mountain against St. Joseph.

One look at St. Joseph hinted at trouble for Modesto Christian. The Knights’ six losses came by a total of only 15 points. They are long and physical – their starters range from 6-foot-3 to 6-9 – and their length clearly messed with the Crusaders’ plan.

And near the basket stood 6-6 wing Tounde Yessoufou (27 points) whose filled-out shoulders do not resemble most sophomores, and 6-9 low-post Caedin Hamilton (10 points).

Prince Oseya makes his way to the Modesto Christian bench after fouling out in the fourth quarter of the CIF Northern California Open Final on Tuesday, March 7, 2023 (Samantha Schmidt).

Both blocked shots and controlled all skirmishes in the paint. MC senior post Prince Oseya, a major presence during MC’s playoff run, was held scoreless and fouled out with 4:22 left. MC’s 47-15 rebounding avalanche during the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I final against Jesuit was a distant memory.

“We think we have one of the best big men in California (Hamilton). We told him at halftime to show why he’s the best big in the gym,” St. Joseph coach Tom Mott said. “(Yessoufou) is a difference-maker. He played under control and took good shots. He was quite phenomenal.”

Modesto Christian (27-7) built an 11-8 first-quarter lead but, even then, St. Joseph was choking off the Crusaders’ inside game. A 12-2 run by the Knights during the second quarter, while Yessoufou established his presence down low, put the visitors ahead to stay. MC wasn’t within five points again.

“It was a balanced team effort, and we knew that’s what we needed to beat a great team like Modesto Christian,” Mott said. “We played a little more focused tonight (compared to the teams’ first meeting) and were a little more mature. We handled their pressure.”

Twice, Yessoufou chased down his own misses and scored. Two ringing slam dunks added to his team’s confidence. Julius Price, a freshman guard, dented the Crusader defense for 17 points. Reserve Darian Mensah, who averages only two points per game, stepped up for eight points. Soon, he will be throwing passes as a scholarship quarterback for Tulane.

BJ Davis often tried high-risk drives into the teeth of the St. Joseph defense, and there was a reason. Other than senior guard Jalen Brown (13 points), freshman guard Rashod Cotton (14 points) and BJ Davis, MC managed only five additional points.

Modesto Christian's Jalen Brown shots a 3-pointer over St. Joseph's Will Kuykendall during the CIF Northern California Open Final on Tuesday, March 7, 2023 (Samantha Schmidt).

“St. Joseph played great tonight. They killed us on the boards,” Fantazia said. “Even their guards were long and bothered our offense.”

At one point during the second half, Yessoufou displayed his versatility by hitting three triples out of four attempts. The St. Joesph lead grew to 63-47 midway through the fourth quarter when BJ Davis sparked his team with an all-out dive for a loose ball. The Crusaders scored six unanswered points, their best run of the game, to trail 63-53 with 2:22 left.

St. Joseph responded with eight straight points and soon became the first Central Section team to reach the CIF Open final.

 Fantazia rationalized about his team’s recovery from losing starters Jamari Phillips and Manasse Itete during the season. In truth, his seniors will go out as one of the most successful classes in school history.

“We’ve been through a lot,” BJ Davis said. “You can soak it up a little bit, but I don’t like to stay in times like this too long.”

There’s just no dodging season’s end.