The Riordan Crusaders exorcized some mammoth demons on Tuesday night, staving off a late comeback bid to complete their first sweep of the Serra Padres since 2009 with a 61-58 win in San Mateo.
But it wasn’t without controversy.
The host Padres were charged their final timeout with 20.5 seconds remaining, a play that loomed large as Riordan (16-4, 9-1 West Catholic Athletic League) ran off the final seconds to escape as Serra (10-9, 3-6) nearly staged another furious comeback, this time cutting an 18-point deficit down to two.
“I can’t call timeout if the other team has the ball, right?” Serra head coach Chuck Rapp asked following the game.
The Padres trailed 57-55 after an Aidan Carleson layup with 35.5 seconds left and were putting on pressure in front of the Riordan bench with 20.5 to go when the ball deflected out of bounds, hitting the official near the scorers table.
Referee Chip Fugate’s quick point led players on both teams to think the Crusaders had called a timeout, when in reality, he was signaling that the ball had gone out of bounds off Serra guard Alex Naber, who had been pressuring Riordan’s Achilles Woodson.
“He thought I waved my hands to say ‘full,’ so he construed it as a full timeout,” Rapp said. “It wasn’t intentional. These things happen in the game.”
Christian Wise, who had struggled at the line all night for the Crusaders, made the first of two free throws with 19.4 left, and when he missed the second, standout sophomore Jasir Rencher grabbed an offensive rebound, forcing the Padres to foul again with 16.2 on the clock. He made both free throws to stretch the lead to 60-55.
Out of timeouts, Rapp couldn’t stop the clock when Naber drained a three from the corner with eight seconds to play.
“I was screaming, ‘There’s my timeout!’” Rapp said, “That’s what I was saving it for.”
Instead, the Crusaders took their time to inbound, and Nathan Tshamala went to the line with 2.8 to go. He made the first free throw, and after he missed the second, Naber tried to call timeout instead of frantically taking the ball up the court in pursuit of a half-court heave.
“It was a timeout we all just assumed we had,” Rapp said. “I felt bad for the kids. They battled and they deserved a fair end, but it wasn’t meant to be.”
The technical foul, which was assessed with 0.2 remaining, suffocated any slim hopes Serra may have still had. To add insult to injury, the Crusaders missed both free throws. Riordan finished an unsavory 9-for-22 at the line, but simply had to inbound the ball afterwards, sealing their first sweep of the Padres since Curtin was an assistant coach fresh out of college.
Those missed free throws, which had no bearing on the outcome, were the only thing Zachary Jones did wrong down the stretch. The backup guard, who’s signing his letter of intent on Wednesday to play football at UC Davis, helped Riordan avoid relinquishing the lead with numerous clutch plays down the stretch.
Moments after freshman Andrew Hilman fouled out, taking away Riordan’s top defender and forcing head coach Joey Curtin to play a small lineup in the final minutes, Jones’ steal and layup put the Crusaders up 53-44. Two minutes later, his acrobatic leap over a player six inches his superior for an offensive rebound kept the ball in Riordan’s hands and set Jasir Rencher up for a trip to the line with 2:10 left.
Sheer displays of individual athleticism like those kept the Crusaders afloat. They led 37-19 on a Rencher dunk halfway through the third quarter, but Serra rattled off a 13-4 run to get back in the game. A Ryan Pettis 3-pointer with 5:14 left cut the lead to 49-42, and he connected again with 1:32 left to make it 55-51.
“That’s been our M.O. this year,” Rapp said. “We seem to dig ourselves holes and then come storming back, but it’s just too little, too late.”
Pettis scored a game-high 29 points, with nine in the third quarter and 13 in the fourth.
Every one of his clutch plays was answered with flair at the other end, though. Rencher’s steal and vicious one-handed dunk sent Riordan into the fourth quarter with a 43-32 lead, and Wise, for all of his struggles on the evening, scored on a nifty double spin move to make it 51-42 with 4:52 on the clock.
“We were able to finish a lot of the drives,” Curtin said.
A 17-6 run that spanned much of the second quarter helped Riordan take a 28-18 lead into halftime, and Rencher’s dunk capped off a 9-1 run to open the second half, giving the Crusaders their largest lead with 4:42 left in the third quarter.
“I was so glad we had a cushion,” Curtin said. “I’ve seen this happen with this Serra team over and over again.”
Rencher led Riordan with 17 points and nine rebounds. The dunk came off a steal and assist from Achilles Woodson, who finished with 10 points and seven assists. Woodson won the first meeting at the buzzer on Jan. 10.
Hilman, a freshman from Cameroon, racked up eight points and nine rebounds with his usual cavalcade of jaw-dropping drives, but picked up his second and third fouls in a 14-second span in the third quarter. He got called for his fourth with 6:11 left in the game, and Pettis drew his fifth with 4:41 on the clock.
“I had a really short bench in the second half with Hilman fouling out so early and missing major minutes before he fouled out,” Curtin said.
Foul trouble has been a struggle for Hilman throughout the year, but the positives far outweigh the negatives. His best play came with 1:17 left in the second quarter, when he forced a steal at half-court, used tremendous footwork to stay inbounds, forced a defender to fall, drew a foul and scored, all part of a three-point play that gave the Crusaders their first double-digit lead.
“Andrew has that motor,” Woodson said.
Tshamala, cousin of Golden State Warriors forward Jonathan Kuminga and Riordan freshman Alex Kuminga, finished with 14 points, knocking down a trio of threes in the first half.
Marcel Elicagaray finished with nine points for Serra, as did Naber, who scored all of his in the fourth quarter. Carleson finished with seven points and five assists.
The Padres will visit Bellarmine (8-11, 3-7) on Thursday and host Sacred Heart Cathedral (9-10, 3-6) on Saturday. Riordan hosts Valley Christian (7-13, 2-8) on Friday.