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Sacred Heart Cathedral girls handle Riordan

Sacred Heart Cathedral guard Reza Po (20) shoots a free throw during the second quarter of the Fightin' Irish's 60-55 loss to Salesian in a non-league basketball game in Richmond, Calif. on Dec. 13, 2022. | Ethan Kassel/The Standard

Thursday night’s 69-48 road win over Riordan showed that the Sacred Heart Cathedral Fightin’ Irish are right back where they want to be.

“It’s a big win for the program,” said Fightin’ Irish head coach Demetrius Jackson. “Even though our non-league schedule isn't over, we have a gap before we get back to it. So for us to be able to get off to this start, regardless of who we play against, it means a lot not only to these players but to the program.”

The last time SHC faced the Crusaders was on May 21, 2021, when Riordan picked up its first girls basketball win in school history. It marked a low point for the Fightin’ Irish, and those lows continued the following season as they struggled to a 9-16 mark.

In that same window, Riordan’s girls program has continued to ascend under head coach Will Watkins. The Crusaders went 12-8 in the 2021-22 season, and would have been a major threat in the Central Coast Section (CCS) Playoffs, but as an independent program rather than a member of a league, they weren’t eligible. Entering Thursday, they had won three straight of their last four, including an 11-point win over Valley Christian.

It’s no doubt that if Riordan’s girls competed in the West Catholic Athletic League (WCAL) with the boys, the Crusaders would be a competitive outfit. For Sacred Heart Cathedral (8-1) to win by 21 says much more about Jackson’s squad than it does about Riordan.

The three-headed monster of Inez Gallegos, Reza Po and Aniyah Versosa led the Irish to a wire-to-wire win at the Crusader Forum. Gallegos, who missed the 2021-22 season with injuries, scored a team-high 18 points. Po finished with 15 and Versosa dropped in 14 off the bench.

“It was all about confidence,” Versosa said of her shooting. “I usually lack confidence, but I had a couple teammates pick me up and that really influenced me to go harder.”

SHC raced out to an early 8-2 lead and held a 20-10 advantage after a quarter, but Riordan (3-5) scored 19 in the second quarter to go into the break trailing by just six. The Crusaders were down just 41-34 midway through the third after freshman center Zion McGuire’s putback, but the Fightin’ Irish scored the final six points of the third quarter and Gallegos single-handedly controlled the final frame.

Gallegos scored 12 of her 18 points within the fourth quarter, and grabbed seven rebounds, including four on the offensive end, within the final eight minutes, a far cry from Tuesday’s loss to Salesian, when the Irish were outrebounded by 20.

Her dominance, combined with an SHC defense that forced 18 turnovers on the night, allowed the Irish to pull away.

 “These young ladies do a great job communicating with each other out there on the floor,” Jackson said of his team's defensive effort. “This game is a difference from last game. We were able to get a lot more loose balls. We were able to rebound a little bit better. Whenever we can do that we’re able to play more to character and get a lot more easy shots and baskets.”

Even with McGuire’s 13 points and 14 rebounds, the Irish had the upper hand in the paint. Ashanti Dias led Riordan with 18 points, but an SHC team that showed extra willingness to hit the deck for loose balls ensured that the Crusaders never got on a serious run.

“We talked about it in film this week,” Jackson said of his team's effort. “We had a couple players that were already on the floor, giving that extra energy and effort and I made a promise to the rest of the team for those players that we would all join them. It was great to see.”

Sacred Heart Cathedral’s next game won’t be until Dec. 27, when the Fightin’ Irish head to the East Bay to square off with Carondelet (8-1). Riordan visits Marin Catholic (3-4) next Wednesday afternoon.