MODESTO – The Modesto Christian Crusaders were escorted to the cliff’s edge Saturday night by De La Salle, the storied Concord school that nearly pushed the home team over said edge.
The last shot didn't fall, however, and the Crusaders—the mighty No. 1 seeds of the CIF Northern California Open Division—avoided that sheer drop 57-56 in front of a screaming packed house at Randy Anderson Gym.
“With Modesto Christian and De La Salle over the years, it’s always a dogfight,” a relieved MC coach Brice Fantazia said. “Two powerhouse programs, champion pedigrees…we survived and advanced.”
Modesto Christian (27-6), which reached the Open state finals a year ago, will welcome St. Joseph of Santa Maria on Tuesday night in the NorCal Open finals. The game might be moved to accommodate a larger crowd, but probably not if MC has its choice.
The teams already met on a neutral court Jan. 16, and the Crusaders crept past St. Joseph 68-67. The Knights earned their finals appearance by beating Dougherty Valley of San Ramon – the North Coast Section champion which topped De La Salle for the East Bay Athletic League title – 87-76.
At this point, Modesto Christian won’t quibble about future opponents. Their joy in victory this night contrasted with their ho-hum response after defeating Jesuit for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I title last weekend. De La Salle (22-9) was a dangerous No. 5 seed.
BJ Davis, MC’s difference-making senior guard, may have saved his team from season’s end. He scored 21 points, and his final basket – a deft behind-the-back dribble in traffic and drive to the hoop – put MJC in front 57-56 with 2:10 left.
Yes, those were the game’s final points. The climax was stocked with thrust and parry as the teams scrapped for the tiniest margins. Modesto Christian appeared to gain the advantage by forcing a shot-clock violation with 38.3 seconds left.
But De Salle sophomore Alec Blair, a headache for MC’s defense all night, leaped to intercept a pass as the Spartans’ back-court pressure forced a turnover. De La Salle coach Marcus Schroeder, a DLS grad and precocious young talent who served not long ago as Randy Bennett’s assistant at St. Mary’s, called a timeout at 13.1 seconds to set up the game-decider.
Modesto Christian won the final possession, and that’s why it’s making plans for Tuesday night. During the final timeout, MC switched defenders on the 6-foot-5 Blair – from 6-6 Kodey Weary to its best on-ball defender, 6-foot Jeremiah Bernard.
Blair, with the ball at the top of the key, gave it up. It ended in the hands of junior Arshawn Salkhi, whose triple with 12 seconds left Wednesday night lifted De La Salle to an upset 46-44 win over Archbishop Mitty.
But this time, Salkhi front-rimmed a 16-footer. MC rebounded. The partisan crowd yelled its approval while a vocal minority from De La Salle looked helplessly at the clock.
“We figured they did not have enough time to run a quick-set to get a post-up (to Blair),” Fantazia said in reference to the change. “Bernard is a better perimeter defender.”
Schroeder tipped his proverbial hat to Modesto Christian and, in hindsight, hoped for a better closing shot. In truth, he couldn’t have been more pleased with the Spartans, most of them in tears after they left the locker room.
“We were definitely trying to get the ball to Blair in the block,” he said. “They (MC) did a good job defensively.”
Blair, a slender lefty who also excels in baseball, proved to be a matchup nightmare for MC. The Crusaders tried at least three different defenders against him. None seemed very effective, especially in the first half.
De La Salle greeted MC by connecting on its first five shots, three by Blair en route to a 12-2 lead that required a quick timeout by Fantazia. The lead grew to 20-8 after a 3-pointer by 6-5 senior Billy Haggerty (19 points), who delighted Schroeder with one of his best performances of the season.
The flurry reminded MC of its overtime close call against Lincoln of Stockton two weeks ago. The Crusaders responded with major efforts by seniors BJ Davis and 6-10 post Prince Oseya (13 points). Oseya, performing at his season peak, hit two 3-pointers that surprised the visitors. Also critical was a trio of 3-pointers during the first half by Zeke Davis.
MC built momentum and eventually strung together a 15-0 run bridging halftime. The last 10 points happened after the break as Jalen Brown’s baseline triple gave MC its first lead 35-34 seconds into the third quarter. A tipin by Weary extended the lead to 42-34, but De LaSalle did not blink.
BJ Davis, bound for San Diego State, carried his team down the stretch. He made a free throw and missed the second with 3:20 left, but Weary somehow tipped it home off the glass for a 55-53 MC lead.
“We have No. 10 (Davis). He’s the best player in California, I think,” Fantazia said. “He was not going to lose tonight.”
Fantazia was right. Without him, MC would have lost.
“They (De La Salle) are definitely good. Hats off to them,” Davis said. “It was a crazy atmosphere in here. It takes a lot to be relaxed and confident in the moment…I know, in my head, I’ve worked for this. I’m made for this.”
And, thanks in part to Davis, MC again has reached the State Final Four—but not before peering anxiously over that edge.