Modesto Christian's Jamari Phillips scored 20 points during the Crusaders' 59-50 loss to Centennial of Corona. (Samantha Schmidt)

Almost but not quite: Modesto Christian rallies but Centennial wins Open title

Ron Agostini

SACRAMENTO – The Modesto Christian Crusaders pulled their jerseys over their faces as the clock ticked to zero Saturday night. They shielded their faces but couldn't hide their pride.

Modesto Christian extended Centennial of Corona, one of the nation’s powerhouses, to the limit. A 14-point deficit was whittled to a 48-48 deadlock with 3:21 left before the Huskies answered decisively to win the CIF State Open Division title 59-50.

“I know my guys are hurting. I’m very proud of them. We’re playing arguably the best team in the country tonight, tie game (with) three minutes left. That’s why it hurts so much,” coach Brice Fantazia said. “We put a scare in ‘em.”

The Crusaders (30-6), making their first appearance in an Open final, never led after a nervous start but chased Centennial (33-1) almost to the end. A partisan crowd at Golden 1 Center screamed for the valley-based underdogs during their dogged rally from a 14-point deficit.

A pair of free throws by center Prince Oseya drew MC even when the Huskies, only the second public school to win an Open championship, showed their class. Donovan Dent (21 points), their New Mexico-bound guard, drove and scored, then stole and scored.

Alex Argandar, the Crusaders’ senior guard, notched his team’s final points with free throws to close the deficit to 52-50 at the 2:40 mark. But Jared McCain (16 points), one of the country’s top junior guards, netted a triple from the wing. Ramsey Huff then finished a fast break with a layup.

Centennial’s game-closing 11-2 run decided it.

“We’re Modesto Christian. I don’t believe in moral victories. We expected to win this game. We had a shot to win,”  Fantazia said. “I definitely think we surprised some people but that’s not good enough for us.”

Modesto’s uphill climb took its toll.  A sore hamstring slowed sophomore forward Manasse Itete (11 points) over the final five minutes. BJ Davis crashed hard on his back as blood trickled down his leg. Jamari Phillips (20 points), the Crusaders’ skilled sophomore, also appeared to be shaken up during the final minutes. All three stayed on the court.

“We had guys banged up and bleeding,” Fantazia said. “All year we talked about being tough and being together. It makes me even more proud.”

Centennial, winner of 30 straight and ranked second in the nation by MaxPreps, coasted through the state bracket until it was challenged by MC. Coach Joshua Giles was surprised that his team was outrebounded 32-28, accented by 15 MC offensive rebounds that launched the rally.

“At times they were working harder than us and winning the 50-50 balls,” Giles said. “I don’t think we lost a rebound war in a couple of months.”

MC needed the blue-collar hustle because its shots weren’t falling. Phillips, hounded most of the night by senior Ramsey Huff, connected on only seven of 23 shots. Davis hit only four of 18. The Crusaders' icy 33-percent shooting proved costly.  

In fact, MC did not score consecutive points against Centennial until it trailed by 14 early in the second half. The Crusaders finally gained some traction when Phillips hit two of three free throws, senior guard Alex Argandar poured in a 3-pointer from the baseline and Itete rebounded for a basket.

The crowd rose to its feet when Itete finished after a long pass from Argandar. Phillips followed in his own missed triple and, seconds later, threw it down after a feed from Davis.

“It was pretty exciting. We brought the lead back,” said Phillips, who drew Huff’s fourth foul late in the third quarter. “We had the crowd chanting and the energy flowing.”

To no one’s surprise, neither team held anything back. Phillips, Dent, Huff and McCain did not leave the floor. Davis was sidelined only for a few seconds. Giles elected to stay with Huff through his foul trouble, a risky choice that eventually worked out.

“There was no way I could take him out,” the Centennial coach said. “I have the utmost trust in him to get don’t win a lot of games without guys like Ramsey.”

The 6-10 Oseya scored on a determined putback and free throw with 4:31 left, but it was MC’s last production from the floor.  

“Centennial did what good teams do,” Fantazia said.

Several MC graduates, including former NBA veteran and Kentucky star Chuck Hayes, attended the game. Though they didn’t witness a landmark win, they no doubt watched with admiration as the Crusaders brushed with school history.

“The guys were not going to quit,” Fantazia summarized.