The Riordan Crusaders faced just the right amount of adversity on Saturday night.
After rolling through their first two opponents at the 63rd Crusader Classic, they trailed at halftime in the championship game against San Ramon Valley and faced a brief deficit in the fourth quarter before finally taking control with a 17-4 run to win their own tournament, 69-63.
“That’s just what we needed at this point in the season,” head coach Joey Curtin said. “It’s a group that hasn’t played much together.”
After showing off a balanced attack in the first two games, Riordan (4-0) deferred to point guard King-Njhsanni Wilhite to take over in the title game. He scored a game-high 35 points, including 14 in the fourth quarter to pull away from a physical and battle-tested Wolves squad.
“It was a fun one,” Wilhite said. “I like competing at a high level like that. I get the ball in my hands and I do what I do best.
Christian Wise made a pair of free throws to put the Crusaders up 49-48 with 5:59 remaining, and Wilhite sandwiched a pair of threes around one by SRV’s Luke Isaak, the latter of which came from NBA range to put Riordan up 55-51.
“I’ve got confidence in myself,” Wilhite said of his long-range shooting. “I practice those shots all the time.”
Jasir Rencher’s putback and five more points from Wilhite, including another deep 3-pointer, made it 62-52 with 2:17 left. In all, he made five threes on the night.
San Ramon Valley (3-1) made one last charge, cutting the deficit to 66-63 with 50.5 seconds remaining after Isaak made a 3-pointer and three free throws, but Wilhite split a pair at the line with 27.6 left to restore a two-possession lead. Rencher’s backcourt steal and dunk moments later put the game out of reach.
Rencher, Wilhite, Wise and Nathan Tshamala were all named to the All-Tournament Team, with Wilhite recognized as Most Valuable Player. Wise was especially impactful on defense. While his seven points and 10 rebounds were vital, he limited Wolves forward Seamus Deely to just two points.
“The offense flows through him,” Curtin said. “If he gets going, then their offense really clicks. Christian knew that that was his assignment and did a great job, and when anyone switched on him, they did a great job.”
Deely also earned All-Tournament honors, along with teammate Will Ambidge.
“It’s always fun when you’ve got a challenge in front of you,” Wise said. “I was just trying to react to what he gave me and not jump on his fakes.”
Isaak was SRV’s high scorer with 32, hitting six 3-pointers and going 12-for-12 at the line. The Wolves made 21 of their 23 free throws, with Parker McClaughry (11 points) going 7-for-7.
McClaughry was fouled on a 3-point attempt with 0.3 left in the first half, and he made all three foul shots to give the Wolves a 36-34 lead. He also scored six in SRV’s 9-2 run to open the game, a sequence which included two free throws after Riordan was assessed a technical foul for having six players on the court after a botched substitution.
Wilhite dug his team out of the early hole, scoring nine in the opening quarter to give his side a 17-15 lead. Riordan went up 32-24 with three minutes left in the second on Achilles Woodson’s reverse layup, but the Wolves closed the half on a 12-2 surge. The Crusaders locked down on defense in the third, allowing just six total points and holding SRV scoreless for a four-and-a-half minute stretch. Wilhite’s stepback three gave his team a 39-38 lead, and Tshamala connected to stretch the advantage to six. SRV scored the first six of the fourth, taking a 48-47 lead on two Isaak free throws with 6:14 left, but Wilhite dominated the rest of the game.
“This was the perfect game for him. He’s been here before, and he knows what to do,” Curtin said. “It’s just right in his wheelhouse.”
Riordan will open the Gridley Invitational in Butte County on Thursday, with their quarterfinal game at 7 p.m. against the host Bulldogs.
Ethan Kassel can be reached at [email protected]