When point guard King-Njhsanni Wilhite abruptly left Riordan for Red Rock Academy, the Crusaders had to find a way to replace 21 points per game on the fly.
They’ve managed to do so through a balanced attack, just like the one that was on display Tuesday night’s 69-58 over the Sacred Heart Cathedral Fightin’ Irish.
Three different players reached double figures: Jasir Rencher, Christian Wise and Achilles Woodson. A fourth, Nathan Tshamala, scored eight points. Halfway through West Catholic Athletic League (WCAL) play, Riordan (14-3, 7-0 WCAL) holds sole possession of first place.
“Being 7-0 and getting through the first half of league unscathed, that’s big,” said Riordan head coach Joey Curtin. “And I think the type of wins we’ve gotten have helped. We’ve gotten a variety of wins.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. Sacred Heart Cathedral (9-7, 3-3) trailed just 57-55 after Jack Kennedy’s layup with 2:22 remaining before the Crusaders closed on a 12-3 run. Rencher restored a two-possession lead with a spinning layup, and a Wise block set up a Woodson-to-Rencher alley-oop that nearly blew the roof off the Crusader Forum with 1:27 left.
“I just realized that we had to slow down,” Rencher said. “I took charge and slowed us down and I just did what I needed to do to help our team win.”
For a sophomore to take on such a prominent leadership role is unusual, but Rencher, whose offers include Mississippi State and Texas A&M, is no ordinary player. He’s also one of the more experienced members of a Crusader roster that’s full of talent but has seen players miss games to injuries and transfer sit-out periods.
“We don’t have that much game experience, but they’re playing their tails off,” Curtin said.
Riordan led by 11 early in the third quarter and entered the fourth with a 51-43 lead, but scored just four points in the first five minutes of the quarter, largely thanks to a sequence of missed alley-oops, including a bid for a reverse dunk by Wise that would have made SportsCenter’s Top 10 had he finished it.
Instead, Sacred Heart Cathedral stuck around. Fed Pernell, who scored a game-high 26 points, drained a 3-pointer with 3:05 remaining to make it a 55-53 game. After being held scoreless in the first quarter, Pernell scored 11 in the second, seven in the third and eight more in the fourth.
Woodson made two free throws with 2:45 left to restore a four-point lead, but Jack Kennedy scored the last of his eight points off a Zemaury Erfe assist to get the Irish back within two.
The Crusaders struggled to put the game away at the free throw line, missing four of their first six attempts inside the final minute, but Tshamala, who had missed the prior two games after suffering a facial injury, scored a putback off a missed free throw with 39 seconds left to extend the lead to 65-56 and put the game out of reach. From there, Woodson closed out his 20-point night by making four free throws. While Riordan went just 19-of-29 from the charity stripe as a team, Woodson was 8-for-9. Rencher, who scored 13 of his 17 points in the second half, went 7-of-10.
“We’ve got to stop fouling so much,” said Sacred Heart Cathedral head coach Caesar Smith, whose team went 11-for-18 at the line.
Foul trouble hampered the Fightin’ Irish for much of the night; Jonah Goorin had three fouls less than two minutes into the third quarter and RL Miller, whose 3-pointer cut Riordan’s lead to 40-36 midway through the third, fouled out in the final minute.
Tshamala and his cousin, 6-foot-7 freshman Alex Kuminga, each hit key shots in the first half. Riordan led 15-12 after a quarter thanks to Tshamala’s 3-pointer, and Kuminga sank a three as part of a 12-0 run that gave the home side a 29-18 advantage in the second quarter.
“We always talk about controlling what we do and worrying about our effort more than worrying about the win and the loss,” Smith said. “Tonight they proved that they’re going to go out and give their best effort every single time, so that, I’m proud of.”
Jerry Mixon Jr. finished with 12 points for the Fightin’ Irish, who will host Serra (9-7, 2-4) on Thursday. The Padres engineered a dramatic 14-point fourth quarter comeback at St. Ignatius on Tuesday night.
Despite struggling with free throws, freshman Andrew Hilman had another strong all-around game for Riordan, with six points, seven rebounds and five assists. His team hosts St. Ignatius (9-8, 3-4) on Thursday, with hopes of completing a season sweep of the Wildcats. The Crusaders won 63-52 when the teams met on Jan. 4.
Tuesday night’s victory marked Riordan’s 10th straight win over the Fightin’ Irish, as well as the Crusaders’ 11th consecutive home victory over SHC. The Irish last won at the Crusader Forum on Feb. 9, 2012, led by seniors Taylor Johns and Josh Fox.
As longtime statistician Patrick Segurson pointed out on Twitter, Tuesday’s win was Riordan’s 400th all-time WCAL victory, the most of any of the league’s eight members.
Ben Rossi can be reached at [email protected]