SAN FRANCISCO — The Riordan Crusaders have heard all the critics before.
Too many individuals, not a team. A young head coach that was overwhelmed in a battle of wits with the blue bloods of the WCAL.
On Friday night, they answered all of the doubters and naysayers emphatically, with newfound synchronicity between point guard Bryce Monroe and his bigs as well as some keen moves by head coach Joey Curtin, combining to help the Crusaders rally to a 71-63 home win over Bellarmine to maintain their share of first place.
“Tonight was the first time we really got to explode,” Monroe said after scoring 19 of his team-high 23 points in the second half.
Playing in his first full game in two weeks after battling a hip flexor injury, one that still left him cramping up on occasion Friday, Monroe not only got himself going in the second half but had his teammates in sync as well, with Riordan (13-2, 4-1 WCAL) working as a full team instead of an amalgamation of talented individuals. Dominic Wilson had 11 points and 19 rebounds while sophomore Mor Seck had 15 points and 13 boards, scoring 13 in the second half and racking up an unbelievable 11 offensive rebounds over the course of the game.
While it was the Crusaders’ fourth straight win, it was also a major personal triumph for Seck, a native of Senegal who only turned 16 in November. On a team getting tons of attention this year with a pair of Division I guards in the backcourt, Seck, so young his voice has yet to drop, has been an easy target as a seven-footer, which came to a head last Friday in a blowout win over St. Ignatius, where the opposing student section rattled and baited him into a pair of technical fouls, forcing his ejection and keeping him out of Tuesday’s game as well.
Those problems seemed to linger for the young center in the first half on Friday, when Bellarmine’s length in the middle never gave him a clean shot or calm moment, and he scored just two points as the second-ranked Crusaders went into the half down 31-23. In past games when he had struggled early on, Seck never seemed to be able to recover, but he looked like a completely different player in the second half thanks to his fresh mentality.
“He didn’t get down on himself at halftime,” Curtin said. “He said, ‘Coach, I promise I’ll play better in the second half. I got it.’ He wasn’t sulking, he wasn’t feeling sorry for himself.”
He combined with Monroe and Wilson to turn the game in the third. After Monroe got his team’s first four points to cut the lead to six, Seck scored on a crafty finish in the lane, then got a putback off a missed Wilson free throw to make it 39-34. He followed that up with another putback, then had a third to answer Quinn Denker’s drive through the middle of the lane.
Denker was everywhere for the Bells in the second half, with 27 of his team’s 32 points to give the senior point guard a game-high 33, but letting him dominate was a risk Curtin and his team were willing to take.
“We didn’t want the other guys to contribute to beat us,” the fourth-year head coach said of his halftime adjustments. “We know he’s really good. He’s gonna get his shots up regardless and he’s gonna make shots because he’s a stud. We wanted to take away the other guys and really limit their contributions on offense.”
Aside from a Ridley Ruth bank three and a Jackson Dupree putback, the Crusaders completely took away the other guys while managing to avoid their own past bad habits as well. Instead of creating five separate one-on-one battles, they continued to spread the ball around and play as a complete team. After yet another Seck putback, making it nine points in the quarter for the sophomore, Monroe answered a Denker 3-pointer with one of his own, and the hosts cut the gap to two as Bellarmine (13-2, 3-2) couldn’t finish a third-chance putback. Wilson fittingly converted his putback at the other end for one of his 10 offensive rebounds. Monroe hit two free throws to tie the game at 46, the first time the teams were even since the game’s opening minutes, and after Dupree’s putback, Je’Lani Clark scored in traffic to tie the game, hollering and firing up the crowd on his way back down the court.
An Anthony Piro steal kept third-ranked Bellarmine even at the end of the quarter, but Monroe’s 3-pointer to open the fourth, just the second of the game for the Crusaders, put the hosts on top for good. The rest of the game was poetry in motion for Riordan, finally satisfying fans and alumni who had been loudly complaining about the team’s play over the first two months of the season. An NBA-range 3-pointer from Monroe made it 54-50, Seck’s putback dunk capped off a 14-4 run to make it 62-52 and Clark, who was experiencing a rare off night from 3-point range, delivered the dagger, not letting his confidence waver even after missing his first three from beyond the arc.
“It was just another shot,” said Clark of the shot, which came from where the volleyball lines would have been located if they were in place on the parquet floor.
The 3-pointer put an end to any suspense, though Denker did score another nine points in the final minutes to bring him to a career-high 33, showing his ability to play against a pair of Division I guards despite the defeat.
“Quinn is perhaps the most competitive player I’ve ever coached,” Bellarmine head coach Patrick Schneider said. “He’s motivated to prove himself as a player, but he really wants to win.”
Denker did all he could to keep his team close in a loss that was similar to the Bells’ two losses to Riordan last year in terms of margin of victory but wildly different in terms of its competitive nature. Whereas Schneider called off the dogs early in last year’s regular season matchups, realizing it was a lost cause, Bellarmine led by as much as 11 in the first half and pressed and fouled until the final seconds with hopes of a comeback.
“We said, look, it’s a minute and something to go, let’s lay it on the line,” Schneider explained.
The teams will meet again in San Jose in three weeks, a matchup in which the Bells will surely try to recapture what they presented in the first half. Denker was held to just six in the first two quarters, but Ian Elam scored ten and played phenomenal defense on Seck and Wilson as the Crusaders were held to 10-for-26 shooting. Elam, Ryan Kiachian and Constantijn Cole, making his first appearance in more than three weeks after recovering from a knee injury, capitalized on the absence of junior power forward Robert Vaihola, who will be out for at least two weeks after breaking a finger in Tuesday’s win over Valley Christian while allowing just 11 combined points from Clark and Monroe.
“If we did a better job staying in front, we’d have a chance to stop them from getting downhill,” Schneider said of what went wrong in the second half. “Instead, we were forcing help, and you can’t help really late and get back to a seven-footer at the rim.”
The Crusaders did manage to start driving downhill in the second half despite Bellarmine’s best efforts, with their bigs finally answering the Bells’ strength.
“Dominic was just tremendous tonight,” Curtin said. “He was all over the floor. He wasn’t afraid of it.”
Wilson and Seck’s big second half, combined with a 16-point performance from Clark and Monroe’s triumphant return, showed just how good Riordan can be when all the pieces are in motion.
That sort of performance will be needed again on Tuesday as the Crusaders take aim at Mitty, with hopes of winning on the Monarchs’ home court for the first time since 2002.
No. 4 Mitty 85, No. 12 St. Ignatius 39
With Aaron Gordon in the house to have his jersey retired at halftime, the Orlando Magic star may as well have been playing for the Monarchs, considering how dominant they were.
Mitty (13-2, 4-1) jumped out to a 24-0 lead, held a 33-5 advantage after a quarter and led 57-17 at the break when Gordon was joined by many of his NBA teammates and high school coaches on the floor for the ceremony. Mikey Mitchell scored 17 to lead the Monarchs, spearheading another balanced scoring attack, as has often been the case for Mitty over the past two years. Owen Browne and Mason Ryan scored 13, Arrish Bhandal and Marcus Greene eached finished with 11 and Nigel Burris added nine, including a thunderous dunk on one of the rims that Gordon had punished for four years.
Ryan Conroy scored nine off the bench to lead St. Ignatius (5-10, 0-5), losers of five straight for the first time since 2012.
No. 1 Serra 65, No. 17 Valley Christian 51
Despite facing an early 11-2 hole after a big Julius Alcantara dunk, the Valley Christian Warriors never went away despite missing two key players at Serra. Even with Will Hook out sick and Kainoa Mayo sidelined by a severe ankle sprain, the Warriors, who had seen running clocks in their prior four games, trailed by just seven with 5:41 left after an 8-0 run fueled by 3-pointers from Jaiden Paran and Pawllos Habtom.
Serra (12-3, 4-1) would finally pull away from there, getting 17 points apiece from Alcantara and Antonio Abeyta. After scoring just 14 in a Tuesday loss at Bellarmine, the Padres had exceeded that total by the end of the first quarter, when they led 19-11. Habtom and Aleksa Jovanovic each scored 14 to lead Valley Christian (8-7, 0-5), while Frain Rivera added 10 and Paran, only a freshman, finished with nine.