Friday night’s loss to Campolindo was the sort of game that’s supposed to benefit the Riordan Crusaders down the road.
Get called for a game-changing technical foul and give up a crucial offensive rebound in December, and you won’t make those same mistakes later in the season.
It turns out later meant less than 24 hours later, as the Crusaders kept the walls from caving in in the third place game at the 68th Gridley Invitational Basketball Tournament, which they won 66-61 over Clovis North.
“The sense of urgency was there,” head coach Joey Curtin said. “We played within the moment and didn’t lose ourselves. That was a great bounceback win.”
Riordan (6-1) led from the opening basket, but had to fend the Broncos off on numerous occasions, including when Clovis North (5-3) cut a 10-point lead to two in the final minutes. The Crusaders led 59-49 on a Jasir Rencher 3-pointer, but surrendered a 10-2 run as Clovis North guard Jaylen Bryant drew a charge, scored twice and recorded a block.
Fortunately for the Crusaders, Zachary Jones stepped up when his team needed it most.
The 5-foot-9 guard only scored five points in Saturday’s victory, but his steal kept the Crusaders ahead. Achilles Woodson followed with two free throws, and after the Broncos cut it to 63-61 on a pair of Jordan Espinoza free throws with 47.6 left, Andrew Hilman threw an alley-oop to Christian Wise for a one-handed dunk. A pair of Clovis North turnovers put the game out of reach.
“If we did break the press, that was gonna be a possibility, and we finally got one at the best time,” Curtin said of the alley-oop.
Jones’ five points were as impactful as possible. His 3-pointer midway through the second quarter put his team up 26-21 after Clovis North had gone on a 9-1 run, and he followed a Nathan Tshamala and-1 early in the fourth with a coast-to-coast layup to make it 53-46.
“He’s just a gamer, man,” Curtin said. “The kid is a freak athlete and a team player. I can’t say enough about him.”
Jones was more prominent as a ball handler on the 2021-22 Crusaders, but with Hilman’s arrival and Rencher’s newfound offensive skills, he’s been mainly used as a defensive specialist and as a secret weapon who can provide a quick jolt off the bench with his game-changing speed.
“He’s almost like a 4 man for us,” Curtin said. “He’s like a space-the-floor 4 because he rebounds and blocks shots. He’s just a Swiss Army knife.”
King-Njhsanni Wilhite scored a game-high 24 for the Crusaders and was named to the All-Tournament Team. He made eight of 10 free throws, grabbed seven rebounds and constantly navigated his way through the lane. His best play of the night came late in the third quarter, when he received an inbound pass under the basket and navigated between two larger defenders, including 6-foot-8 Malik Musleh, before converting a layup to put Riordan up 48-40.
Tshamala and Wise each scored 12 points. Wise’s early and-1 gave Riordan a quick 7-0 lead, and Tshamala’s 3-pointer put the Crusaders up 12-3. Riordan led 20-9 late in the first quarter after two Wilhite free throws before Loukas Jones, Clovis North’s All-Tournament Team representative, closed the quarter with a 3-pointer. Jones scored 17 to lead the Broncos, draining five 3-pointers and accounting for nine of his team’s 12 points in the opening frame.
Wise, who won the dunk contest at Friday’s rally and became an instant celebrity in the town of 7,500, finished a rebound shy of a double-double and also made the All-Tournament Team. Rencher finished with seven points and nine rebounds.
Espinoza, who won Thursday’s opener for the Broncos with a layup at the buzzer, finished with 15 points and nine rebounds, while Bryant and Nasr Chaudhary each scored nine. Connor Amundsen, who scored 21 points for the Broncos in last season’s Northern California championship victory over St. Ignatius, is out for the season with a torn labrum, yet Clovis North still finished in fourth, losing to eventual champ Salesian by just two points in the semifinals.
Following postgame handshakes, the Crusaders gathered for an impromptu photo session—not with a third place trophy, but with their host families and the middle schoolers who served as their managers throughout the weekend.
“Nice people, nice tournament, and I learned a lot,” said Tshamala, who was born in the French-speaking Democratic Republic of the Congo. “I hope we come back strong next year.”
Such is the spirit of the Gridley Invitational. As much as the teams improve over three games against top competition, good basketball can be found at tournaments all across the state. The connections made between a group of kids who come from the Bay Area, or, in Tshamala and Hilman’s case, Africa, and the residents of a small farm town along Highway 99 is a one-of-a-kind experience.
Ethan Kassel can be reached at [email protected]