The kids standing behind the west basket chanting, “Hey hey, goodbye,” at Riordan likely didn’t know or care that the Crusaders were missing five players, including three starters.
If the Granada students who flooded onto the court after beating Riordan 69-57 knew, it didn’t matter much to them, either.
But the Crusaders, playing a makeshift roster of eight players, including three that spent most of the season on the bench and two who had been on the junior varsity team, pushed the Matadors to the limit before fading in the final minutes.
“They left it all out there,” head coach Joey Curtin said.
Under normal circumstances, fourth-seeded Riordan (23-7) would have hosted Saturday night’s California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Northern California Division I Semifinal against the ninth-seeded Matadors with a full cadre of players. But Thursday night’s win over Inderkum ended in a brawl, one that started when a Riordan player shoved an Inderkum player in the back and descended into chaos when the Tigers’ bench subsequently rushed onto the floor.
Though no Riordan players threw any punches, five players were suspended: the one whose shove started the fight (who was also in concussion protocol after getting punched in the back of the head), one who left the bench and three of the four other players who were on the court at the time of the incident. All five would have seen playing time against Granada (25-10) and could have helped to slow down seven-foot center Andrew McKeever.
“It’s nowhere near fair,” Curtin said of the suspensions. “If one guy gets injured on your team, fine. But to have three starters and two guys that are in my rotation not play, it just sucks. But I am proud of the guys that got out here and gave it their all. Their teammates had their backs a hundred percent all day, telling them they could do it. But McKeever was just a little too much.”
McKeever, a St. Mary’s commit playing in his final home game for the ninth-seeded Matadors, had 31 points and 17 rebounds. He had a double-double less than three minutes into the second quarter and scored 22 of Granada’s 34 points in the first half. After scoring just a single point in the third quarter, he had his team’s first eight of the fourth, including a one-handed alley-oop with 4:46 left in the game that sent the home crowd into hysterics and gave the Matadors the first double-digit lead of the night.
“You’ve got to do your best to keep him out of that deep post position,” Curtin said of McKeever. “If he gets that, it’s hard to stop. I had 6-7, 6-6 and 6-5 on the bench that could jump out of the gym.”
Curtin’s Crusaders never led after the final minute of the first quarter, but never trailed by more than nine until that McKeever alley-oop. They tied the game at 37 on a Christian Wise putback with 5:13 left in the third quarter but promptly surrendered the next five points on a NaVaughn Long floater and Marco Wilde 3-pointer.
Long, who presumably would have been defended by one of Riordan’s regular starters, had 15 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
“You saw the talent that didn’t play tonight,” Curtin explained. “I think it would have been a different story (with them playing).”
The eight who did play did one heck of a job, though. Wise had 21 points and eight rebounds, while freshman Andrew Hilman, who was asked to move into a point guard role, had 20 points and nine assists in a virtuoso performance to cap off a stellar first year.
“He played his heart out like he always does,” Curtin said of Hilman, a native of Cameroon who had a UC Santa Barbara offer before he played his first high school game and will presumably have more Division I offers rolling in soon. “He’s played that role in practice, getting used to it and priming him for next year. He was in that role a little bit earlier than I wanted him to be, but he did a fine job.”
Wise and Hilman were Riordan’s only regular starters on the floor. Kaia Berridge was the only other player who had played more than a few minutes in the last month. The rest of the rotation was filled out by three juniors who had hardly seen the floor since December in center Kalolo Ta’aga and guards Zeke Natorilla and JahKeenan Williams-Choa. The seventh player, Jasen Davis, was a freshman who had spent the first half of the season on the junior varsity team, then missed much of West Catholic Athletic League (WCAL) play with an injury.
“We just had to prepare with the pieces that we had,” Wise said. “The dudes who came out there that hadn’t been getting as many minutes this season played a great game. They went out there and handled business.”
An eighth Crusader, Jeremiah Jones, was just pulled up from the JV unit and only played in the final minutes to give fouls.
The Matadors missed back-to-back 1-and-1s with Riordan fouling inside the final minute but got the offensive rebound both times before finally putting the game away as Kevin Grant and Matai Faiaipa’u made six free throws inside the final 35 seconds.
Grant scored 12 points off the bench, including a pair of 3-pointers sandwiched around the end of the first quarter that the Crusaders tried to make up for throughout the rest of the night. He likely would have been defended by Zachary Jones, a senior whose involvement in the fight was less blatant on video than the other suspended players.
“He didn’t get to play his last game of his senior year for doing nothing wrong,” Curtin said of Jones.
Granada opened the second quarter on a 9-4 run thanks to Grant’s 3-pointer and three McKeever baskets to take a 26-17 lead, though Riordan went into halftime trailing by just five after a pair of Wise dunks and a deep Williams-Choa 3-pointer.
“He’s gotten so much better from preseason to playoffs,” Curtin said of Williams-Choa, who effectively filled Jones’ role, taking a charge against a player who stood a full foot taller than him. “He was ready for the intensity tonight.”
His 3-pointer with 1:34 remaining cut Granada’s lead to 61-54. After an uncharacteristic rushed 3-point attempt by the Matadors with half of the shot clock still remaining, Hilman made one of two free throws, but Granada broke the press after he missed the second, with Long converting an easy layup at the other end off of a Tyler Harris stretch pass.
Harris, who transferred from Salesian before the year, had six points and eight assists. The Matadors will face sixth-seeded Salesian on Tuesday night in the Northern California Division I Championship Game, most likely at Contra Costa College.
“Playing at home was special, don’t get me wrong, but we would’ve been just as fine playing on the road,” remarked Granada head coach Quaran Johnson, whose team took down top-seeded Clovis West on the road in overtime on Thursday. “You go to Clovis, you can go anywhere.”
Had Riordan pulled off the upset on Saturday night, the Crusaders would have once again been on the road as the higher seed for Tuesday’s NorCal championship. They forfeited their ability to play at home as part of the sanctions from the CIF in response to Thursday’s melee.
“We’re the high seed left in the tournament, and we would have been at home if it wasn’t for an out-of-control team that we just played,” Curtin said. “You feel a bit robbed.”
Players react to loss, suspensions
“I wanted my teammates to play,” said Hilman, a native French speaker who spent most of his childhood in the Cameroonian capital of Yaoundé. “I had to step up. I played for my teammates because I want the team to win.”
“I didn’t want to throw nothing because I was worried about my future. I was just trying to avoid it,” Jones said of his role in Thursday’s fight. “If anything, I was trying to break it up. They told me I was suspended, so I’ve got to abide by the rules.”
“I appreciated how much they tried to get me another game,” Wise said of the bench players who stepped up. “I can truly say that everybody on my team is my brother. That’s what I’m gonna remember more than the basketball, more than the fights, more than the conflict, more than winning.”
Ethan Kassel can be reached at [email protected]