Modesto Christian guard Jamari Phillips leads the team in scoring at 23.8 points per game. The Crusaders will need all of those points and more as they take on national No. 2 Centennial in the CIF State Open Division championship on Saturday, March 12, 2022. (Samantha Schmidt)

Summit meeting: Modesto Christian collides with Centennial in State final

Ron Agostini

Modesto Christian basketball has accomplished great things in its storied history, but it’s never climbed to this summit.

The Crusaders, fresh off their first Northern California Open Division title, meet Centennial of Corona in the Open final to cap the 40th CIF State Championships on Saturday night at Golden 1 Center. Tipoff is 8 o’clock for the climax of the 12 state finals held over two days at the home of the Sacramento Kings.

“We’re going to continue the tradition,” Modesto Christian coach Brice Fantazia said this week. “We’ve done some things we’ve never done before.”

Fantazia is right. For all the major hardware in their trophy case – the record 20 Sac-Joaquin Section blue banners and the state Division V title in 1997 and 2004 – the Crusaders will make their first appearance in a state final since that victory in ’04 over Price of Los Angeles.

But here’s the rub: The Open bracket, begun in 2013, has been problematic for MC. It fell in the NorCal final in 2014, 2015 and ’19 before it broke through in Tuesday night’s pulsating 56-53 victory in Moraga over Campolindo.

Saturday night will mark Modesto Christian’s first visit to the state’s highest stage. It’s arguably the program’s most prestigious moment since 2001, when it was barely beaten by Mater Dei in the state Division I final. Fantazia’s grandfather took him to that game, attended by about 14,000 at the old Arco Arena.

Using every inch of his 6-foot-4 frame, sophomore Ty Virgil shoots over a Durango defender.

Breaking down the MC-Centennial matchup is launched with one simple fact: Modesto Christian (30-5) is the underdog. Centennial (32-1), winner of 29 straight, is ranked second in the nation by MaxPreps and is unbeaten against state opponents. MC is not ranked in the top 50.

“Centennial has beaten a couple of teams that were more talented than them,” Fantazia said. “They’re obviously loaded, a big-time team. It’ll be an honor to play a team like that.”

Fantazia’s team, a powerhouse much like Centennial, has gotten here with some of the best defense in school history. It’s allowed only 48 points a game in the playoffs, a run best illustrated in its final two games played in front of hostile crowds: 48-44 over Clovis West and the emotional victory over Campolindo.

A case in point is senior point guard Alex Argandar, the Crusaders’ often unappreciated floor leader. He always orchestrates the high-energy attack featuring sophomore Jamari Phillips (23.8 points per game) and BJ Davis (17 points per game).

Argandar’s defense, however, was pivotal against Campolindo. He held Cade Bennett, who averaged 11 points a game, scoreless. That allowed Phillips to shine with eight points in the final two minutes, including a step-back triple with 30 seconds left for a six-point lead.

The potential game-tying 3-pointer from 40 feet at the buzzer by Aidan Mahaney, Campo’s St. Mary’s-bound star, caromed off the glass and the front rim.

“The win over Clovis West built our confidence and we carried that to Campolindo,” Fantazia said. “Sometimes our youth is a positive. We’re not scared.”

How the Modesto Christian backcourt defends Centennial 6-3 junior Jared McCain could decide the game. McCain, a Folsom product, is a five-star prospect coveted by Duke, UCLA and nearly every other collegiate heavyweight.

“Everybody knows they’re good. They’re talented and deep just like us,” Argandar said. “We’re going to have to land the first punch and withstand their runs. We’ve always been capable of this kind of defense.”

The Crusaders’ maturation over the past month has taken them to the ultimate game. But ahead of them awaits their biggest challenge. Consider: Centennial scored the game’s first nine points and blitzed Sierra Canyon 83-59 in the SoCal final, despite only 10 points from McCain.

MC's Jamari Phillips rises up for two points in a Holiday Hoop Classic win over Nevada's Durango.

Modesto Christian’s front line, often an advantage, is matched by Centennial. Devin Williams, a 6-9 forward, had 19 points against Sierra Canyon and 6-7 Aaron McBride had 13. The Huskies also are led by 6-2 guards Ramsey Huff (20 points in the regional final) and New Mexico-commit Donovan Dent (18 vs. Sierra Canyon).

“McCain is a high IQ guy, plays at his own pace and shoots the lights out. I’ve coached against him since he was in fifth grade,” Fantazia praised. “We’re confident in our own guards as well.”

Besides containing McCain, Modesto Christian’s front line – led by 6-10 Prince Oseya and 6-6 sophomore Manasse Itete – must hold its own.

A potential plus for MC is its relative familiarity with Golden 1. The Crusaders defeated Sheldon 52-42 there last month in the section D-I final.

“The hardwood is springy and the rims are firm. You really can’t hear much of anything when you’re out there,” Argandar said. “I’ve dreamed of this game and now it’s happening. It’s kind of crazy.”

Fantazia, supported by hard-driving assistant coach Chris Teevan (he coached Weston Ranch to a D-III section title in 2016 and a NorCal D-II title in 2020), feels much-deserved pride in his team’s development.

“It took us a long time for the team to buy in about winning being the top priority,” Fantazia said. “We’re blessed to have talented kids…We can beat anyone anywhere. We’ll obviously have to shoot it well and not beat ourselves against Centennial.”

The state tournament has not been contested since 2019 due to the COVID pandemic.