Modesto Chr boys win SJS “Open”

No, they don’t call the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division I boys basketball playoffs an Open Division bracket, but thanks to several years of the smaller private schools being moved up in divisions it’s just about the same as others that are officially labeled as open divisions.

And the finishes over the past two years involving two of the top teams in Northern California each time sure warrant the section’s top division standing out that much.

Senior Gabe Murphy celebrates on the bench with teammates shortly after Modesto Christian won CIF Sac-Joaquin Section title. Photo: Mark Tennis.

In Saturday’s D1 section final at University of the Pacific, Modesto Christian earned the blue banner with a 60-56 victory over Sheldon of Sacramento. The Crusaders were down 56-55 with less than 30 seconds left but needed to get off a shot with about 10 seconds remaining. As the shot clock was just about to sound, senior guard Junior Ballard launched a 35-foot bomb that found all net for a hard-to-believe three-pointer and a 58-56 lead.

Sheldon’s players knew they had time for a last-second shot of their own and it looked like the Huskies got a break when a foul was called with two seconds on the clock. Senior Dale Currie could have made two free throws to tie the score, but missed on the first attempt. Modesto Christian then added two free throws with 1.1 seconds left for the final margin.

“No, I didn’t know the shot clock was going down,” said Ballard, who was 1-for-8 shooting and 0-for-4 on threes before taking that last one. “I just heard Mike (Mike Pearson, the point guard) yelling for me to shoot it so I did.”

In winning the matchup of teams ranked No. 6 and No. 12 in the state by Cal-Hi Sports, Modesto Christian (28-3) won its 19th section title and secured either the No. 2 seed or No. 3 seed in the upcoming CIF NorCal Open Division playoffs. Getting No. 2 or No. 3 (Bishop O’Dowd of Oakland could also be No. 2) is important because the No. 2 seed would host in a possible semifinal. The top seed is expected to go to overall state No. 1 Salesian of Richmond.

Sheldon (26-5) lost a heartbreaker in the section final for the second straight year. In 2017, the Huskies fell to Woodcreek of Roseville 69-68 when Woodcreek’s Jordan Brown made two free throws with less than one second remaining. This time, they couldn’t make two with two seconds left that would have forced overtime. At least head coach Joey Rollings can tell his players they bounced back last year to gain a rematch with Woodcreek in the NorCal final.

Four teams from the SJS D1 bracket were taken into the eight-team NorCal Open Division last year and it is believed that will happen again. Both semifinalists Folsom (lost to Sheldon in OT) and Capital Christian (lost to Modesto Christian) have the resumes to go up.

“Essentially this is our Open Division,” said Modesto Christian head coach Brice Fantazia. “We’ve won section titles before, but to win in Division I is so much more special. We’re now back in D1, Capital Christian is now D1 and there are others. They are the big boys and we consider us big boys. We want to play anybody.”

Tyler Williams made two buzzer-beating shots earlier in the game for the Crusaders and led all scorers with 13 points. Ballard’s bomb gave him 10.

Currie may have missed that free throw, but came up huge for Sheldon. One of the leading candidates to be the Sacramento Bee’s Metro Player of the Year, Currie had 24 points on 10-of-20 shooting and made four three-pointers. Both Chris Wreidt and Ronald Agebsar were tough on the boards with 10 rebounds each and combined to score 17 points.

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