Open showdown -- Modesto Christian, St. Joseph collide in NorCal final at MJC

Ron Agostini

The Modesto Christian Crusaders and the St. Joseph Knights will bring elite players to an elite stage Tuesday night at Modesto Junior College Gym.

MC guard BJ Davis, a gifted senior headed for San Diego State, will be countered by 6-foot-6 200-pound sophomore forward Tounde Yessoufou who has many collegiate suitors. Yessoufou ripped for 31 points during Modesto Christian’s one-point win over the Santa Maria school on Jan. 16 at De La Salle’s MLK Classic.

Davis answered with 39 points and teammate Jeremiah Bernard preserved the win with a blocked shot in the final seconds.

But this time, the teams meet for high stakes – the CIF Northern California Open Division Finals. The reward is a trip to the state title game, where MC lost a year ago.

“This could be the biggest game in area history,” Modesto Christian coach Brice Fantazia said Monday. “This is the big-boy bracket, and I hope people will come out and see how big it is and how important it is to these teams.”

Schools in the area beside Modesto Christian have won state titles in the past. There is even precedent for an MC playoff game to be moved to MJC. It happened in 2001, when the Crusaders and Andrew Hill drew a standing-only crowd to the Pirates’ home. Fantazia, back then a junior-high student, attended that night while Chuck Hayes and Richard Midgley led the Crusaders to a win as they marched to the state Division I final.

The Open Division wasn’t begun until a decade ago, however, which gives Tuesday night’s showdown special marquee value.

Modesto Christian hoped to keep the game at cozy Randy Anderson Gym, of course, but the CIF mandated the switch to the 1,800-seat MJC facility to accommodate a larger crowd. And, yes, all gate receipts go to the CIF.

“It (holding the game at MC) wasn’t an option,” Fantazia said.

The top-seeded Crusaders (27-6) have dodged a few potholes in their return to the NorCal finals. The in-season loss of starters Jamari Phillips, their best player a year ago, and football prospect Manasse Itete required more than a small adjustment.

Undaunted, Modesto Christian made an impressive march to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I title with dominant performances over Inderkum and, in the final, Jesuit 79-53.

That said, the postseason hasn’t always been a romp. MC overcame scary challenges by Lincoln of Stockton in the section quarterfinals and last Saturday night by De La Salle. MC trailed De La Salle until Davis’ high-level drive to the hoop and finish, followed by two clutch stops, for a 57-56 victory.

“Lincoln played well and hit a lot of shots. The De La Salle game is just how it is in the Open Division,” Fantazia said. “You go into Open history, and there are very few blowouts.”

Modesto Christian, hindered by a flu bug last week, is expected to be healthy for No. 3 seed St. Joseph (27-6). The Crusaders’ full attention will be needed.

“Yessoufou (he averages 28 points a game) is a monster. Their starting five is as good as anyone in the state,” Fantazia said. “We’re battle-tested. Our tough schedule has prepared us. It’s a matter of who makes the plays and who stays composed.”

The matchup is part of a virtual State Final Four.  Defending champion Centennial and Harvard-Westlake vie in the Southern California title game.  The championship game again will be contested at Golden 1 Center, home of the Sacramento Kings, Saturday night at 8 o’clock.