It was supposed to be Riordan’s big night.
A jam-packed Crusader Forum was supposed to watch a barrage of high-flying dunks as the top team in the West Catholic Athletic League (WCAL) overwhelmed a young and inexperienced St. Ignatius side missing its Division I-bound center.
Instead, a Wildcats team starting three freshmen, the same team that had blown a 14-point fourth quarter lead two nights earlier, outplayed the host Crusaders throughout the second half and silenced the home crowd and emerged with a 65-59 win.
“This is a statement game for us,” said Raymond Whitley, who scored a game-high 18 points. “They expected us to lose by 20.”
Three weeks earlier, the Wildcats lost to the Crusaders at home, falling into an early 20-point hole. Since then, they had lost Pepperdine commit John Squire to a season-ending ankle injury and lost two games after leading by double digits in the second half.
Thursday night was a different story. St. Ignatius (10-8, 4-4 WCAL) trailed by six at halftime, caught up midway through the third quarter and led for the final five minutes. Steele Labagh’s layup with 5:31 remaining, his first points of the night, gave the Wildcats a 47-45 lead that they’d never relinquish.
“They’re all growing up in front of our eyes,” head coach Jason Greenfield said of the freshman trio of Labagh, Whitley and Caeden Hutcherson. “It’s fun.”
All three freshmen showcased their different skills in the second half, instead of withering in front of an enormous crowd that was yearning for their downfall. Whitley was unstoppable in transition, Hutcherson showcased his dynamic offensive talents and Labagh, a coach’s son with ice in his veins, played stellar defense and drained six free throws to help close the game out. All the while, Theo Lamb filled Squire’s role admirably and point guard Kreekor Karageuzian played his smoothest game yet, serving as the facilitator that tied everything together.
Conversely, Riordan (14-4, 7-1) looked like five individuals for most of the night, rather than a team. Even when the Crusaders got off to a strong start, it was off of individual drives to the basket, and when they did finally work the ball around to get outside shots, they didn’t fall.
“You have to play smart, you have to play under control and you’ve got to capitalize on your opportunities,” Riordan head coach Joey Curtin said. “They’re playing as hard as they can, and we just didn’t match it.”
The Wildcats trailed 30-24 at halftime after Whitley made a pair of free throws with 0.5 left in the second quarter, and Hutcherson’s drive to the basket with 3:22 left in the third gave them their first lead since it was 9-8. Karageuzian’s drive off a Lamb screen served as a quick response to Nathan Tshamala’s elbow jumper, which had briefly put Riordan back on top, and the lead grew to five on a Whitley drive and a Lamb block that turned into a Karageuzian layup.
Riordan entered the fourth quarter trailing 43-40 after Jasir Rencher’s spinning drive to the basket, but scored from the field just three times in the final period. The Crusaders’ last field goal came with 2:10 remaining, and they missed their final six shots.
“We missed a ton of paint shots tonight, and that killed us,” Curtin said.
Two Andrew Hilman free throws gave the hosts a 44-43 lead with 7:07 remaining, and the teams were even at 45 when Christian Wise split a pair of free throws with 5:50 left, but Labagh’s drive broke the tie for good.
Hutcherson was fouled on a 3-point attempt with 4:53 remaining and made two of his three free throws, and Whitley scored off a turnover to make it 51-46. Lamb’s 3-pointer, which made it 54-48 with 3:45 remaining, may have been the biggest blow of all.
“That was a backbreaker,” Curtin remarked. “He’s really stepped up in Squire’s absence.”
Lamb finished with 10 points, hitting a pair of threes, and dished out a trio of assists, but his most important contributions came on the defensive end, where he protected the rim.
“It’s been hard adjusting (to Squire’s absence), but we got it done tonight,” the 6-foot-7 junior said.
Nathan Tshamala’s 3-pointer with 3:17 remaining got the Crusaders back within three and injected some life into the restless crowd, but Labagh made a pair of free throws with 2:23 to go. Achilles Woodson’s drive to the basket with 2:10 left, which trimmed the lead to 56-53, served as Riordan’s final made field goal of the night.
That wasn’t to say the Crusaders didn’t have their chances in the dying minutes, though. Zachary Jones made an acrobatic play to grab an offensive rebound after Riordan missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer, and Whitley missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 1:17 remaining when SI led by just three, but a Lamb block set off a fastbreak that culminated in a Hutcherson basket with 1:04 to go.
“It’s difficult because we wanted to crash the glass, but you have to be disciplined doing that,” Curtin said. “I think we got caught a couple times where too many guys were crashing, so they were able to get out in transition.”
Two Jones free throws with 54.3 left made it a three-point game once again, but Lamb knocked down a pair at the other end to put the ‘Cats up 60-55.
“Hitting free throws with people screaming in my ear, that felt good,” Lamb said.
Hutcherson, who finished with 17 points, made one of two with 40 seconds left to extend the lead to six. Labagh knocked down a pair with 25.2 remaining, leading a few fans to trickle towards the exits, and he drained two more with 9.6 left for the final margin.
“We needed to pull something big like this,” Hutcherson said.
Thursday’s win was St. Ignatius’ 400th WCAL victory, matching a milestone the Crusaders had reached on Tuesday. Both programs now sport 400-296 overall records since the league started in 1968.
Rencher led Riordan with 17 points and picked up seven rebounds. His alley-oop off a Tshamala lob capped off a 7-0 run to start the second quarter that gave the Crusaders a 23-16 lead, and he hit a 3-pointer to make it 30-22 in the final minute of the first half. Woodson scored 10, buoyed by a perfect 6-for-6 free throw performance, while Hilman, Tshamala and Wise each finished with eight. Hilman’s 13 rebounds led all players.
Karageuzian finished with 10 points and four assists for the Wildcats, who will host Valley Christian (6-12, 1-7) at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday. The Warriors lost 62-60 in overtime on Thursday night to St. Francis (11-6, 4-4), who will host Riordan on Saturday in another 6:30 p.m. game.
The Crusaders are now tied with Mitty (15-3, 7-1) for first place, though Riordan does own the head-to-head tiebreaker thanks to last week’s 60-50 win. Riordan visits the Monarchs on Feb. 7.
Ethan Kassel can be reached at [email protected]