King-Njhsanni Wilhite was Riordan’s leading scorer in Saturday’s season-opening win over the Weston Ranch Cougars at the 15th Nor Cal Tip-Off Classic, just as he was in 26 of the Crusaders’ 30 games in the 2021-22 season.
Unlike in last year’s Central Coast Section (CCS) Open Division Championship run, he deferred to much more of his supporting cast along the way before taking over down the stretch in the Crusaders’ 74-67 win.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that I feel comfortable going to war with,” the senior point guard said. “A lot of guys have stepped up and gotten better in the offseason. I’m trusting them, so I’m making the extra pass to come out with wins like this.”
Wilhite’s eight straight points put Riordan (1-0) back in control after Weston Ranch (0-2) had tied the game on a Khristian Holmes 3-pointer with 3:57 left after the Crusaders had jumped out to a double-digit lead behind two of their youngest stars.
Sophomore Jasir Rencher scored 11 points in the first quarter and Cameroonian freshman Andrew Hilman scored 17, but the Cougars fought back as the duo spent time on the bench in foul trouble.
An early 36-22 lead shrank to just three at halftime as Weston Ranch finished the second quarter on an 8-1 run, capped off by Elliot Mobley’s 3-pointer at the buzzer. That advantage grew back to eight in the third before the Cougars closed the quarter on an 8-2 run after Rencher picked up his third foul and Hilman got called for his fourth, and Mobley’s 3-pointer off an inbound play tied the game just after the midway mark of the final period.
Wilhite immediately put the Crusaders back on top with a floater, then followed it up with a deep 3-pointer after a Cougar miss. He sank another from closer to the 3-point line after a Weston Ranch turnover, and though he missed two free throws with 1:27 left, Christian Wise scored the last four of his 17 points in the final minutes to put the game out of reach.
Wise, who had to sit Riordan’s first 10 games last season after transferring from Heritage, showed prowess as a shot blocker during his junior season but struggled on the offensive end. Saturday’s performance was a testament to the work he had put in during the offseason to round out his skillset.
“I’ve just been working on shooting and making the game simple for myself,” said Wise, who was named Player of the Game. “It was a lot of footwork and easy stuff around the basket.”
Wise had a game-high 17 rebounds, and different statisticians attending the eight-game showcase at Dublin High credited him with between four and seven blocks.
“I’m gonna say it’s seven,” he said with a smile.
The tight second half, which saw both teams reach the bonus by the end of the third quarter, was more stressful than Joey Curtin and his coaching staff would have preferred, but there are benefits to encountering adversity in an early season non-league game instead of cruising to victory.
“That’s why we do these events and play top teams in the area,” Curtin said. “All those games that we play in league play are high-intensity, physical, rivalry-type games, and Weston Ranch played to the final whistle. They play really hard.”
Over the course of the first 13 minutes, the Crusaders demonstrated why they’re considered by many outlets as the top team in the entire Bay Area. Wise blocked four shots in the game’s first 10 minutes and Hilman scored an early 11, with his first career basket off a steal and dunk. The 6-foot-3 freshman scored in every conceivable fashion, with putbacks, drives and a 3-pointer that gave Riordan its largest lead of the day.
“He plays like a senior,” Curtin said of Hilman, who also totaled nine rebounds and five assists. “He had a couple turnovers that I know he wishes he had back, but he doesn’t get frazzled, and he comes back and makes up for it.”
As fouls piled up in the third, Darrion Lilly came off the bench to help the Cougars back into the game. He went 5-for-6 at the line on a day where both teams failed to convert on numerous foul shots; Weston Ranch was 10-for-22 and Riordan made just 10 of 23. A Holmes 3-pointer made it 55-54 with 6:08 left, and Mobley cut the lead back to one in transition after Wilhite sank two free throws. Hilman rebounded his own miss and scored to make it 59-56 before a Caleb Butler offensive rebound and Cougar timeout, and Richard Banks hit Holmes on the ensuing inbound play to tie the game.
Mobley scored a team-high 19 for the Cougars; his twin brother, Elijah, scored 10 of his 17 in the second quarter. Holmes finished with 12 points and five assists.
Riordan will play next Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at home in the 63rd Crusader Classic. The Crusaders will host Mission in a Wednesday quarterfinal at 7:30 p.m., and could face the likes of Sacred Heart Prep, San Ramon Valley or University on Saturday.
Ethan Kassel can be reached at [email protected]