ARCHBISHOP RIORDAN — When the Archbishop Riordan basketball team entered room 216 on campus Wednesday afternoon, the lights were off. Head coach Joey Curtin had some film to show them.
Over the next three hours, the Crusaders dissected each and every defensive failing that cost them a 67-64 game against West Catholic Athletic League rival Serra the night before. At no point during the day on Wednesday did Curtin’s players touch a basketball. Je’Lani Clark — arguably the most dynamic scorer in the league — took the brunt of the criticism.
“I said it’s not about picking up a ball,” Curtin said. “It’s about being honest with ourselves …To show what kind of leader he was, he was taking a majority of the heat. He’s supposed to be a leader on this team. He said, ‘I’ll own it. That’s on me. If I play better, we beat Serra.'”
On Thursday morning, Clark texted Curtin. “I’m ready to go today. Don’t worry about me”. Then, on Thursday night, against a Sacred Heart Cathedral team already reeling from a 20-point Bruce-Mahoney Game loss to St. Ignatius, Clark scored 20 points, pulled down nine rebounds, dished out a game-high seven assists and — most importantly to the 6-foot-3 junior — swiped six of the Crusaders’ 11 steals in an 84-44 win over the Irish.
“The defense is what I was most proud of,” Clark said. “After that loss, I put a lot of it on me. I didn’t really play good defense. I let their best player get in a groove, so I took all that into this game, and I wanted to lock up on defense. Now, I’ve proved that I can get six steals a game, so now, I have to build on it.”
“Wow,” Curtin mouthed as he looked at the score sheet. “He almost had a quadruple double, with 20 points.”
Riordan (10-4, 3-1 in WCAL) held Sacred Heart Cathedral (8-6, 1-3) to just 23.7 percent shooting (14-of-59) on the night, forcing 23 turnovers while limiting the damage from 19 turnovers of their own. The Crusaders scored 21 points off of turnovers, but gave up only 12 off of their own miscues. Big Oscar Cheng, the centerpiece of the Irish attack, went just 2-for-9 from the field for five points.
While defense was the order of the night, both Clark and his cousin Bryce Monroe celebrated scoring milestones on the night. Monroe reached 1,130 points in his career, with 956 of those coming while he was playing for Sacred Heart Cathedral.
In his first game against his old teammates, he scored 14 points on 5-of-11 shooting, hit 2-of-3 from beyond the arc and pulled down six rebounds. He also had four assists — one more than the Irish had as a team.
“It was very emotional,” Monroe said. “It was cool to see some of my friends, my old classmates and my old coach. It was just fun to get out there. I wanted to beat them bad, and we did. I wasn’t worried about points, assists or turnovers. I just wanted to win the game by a lot, and we did.”
Clarks’ 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting (2-of-5 from three) moved him past current Hawaii starter Eddie Stansberry for 12th on Riordan’s all-time scoring list, with 963 points in his Crusaders career.
The only 11 men left in front of Clark have scored 1,000 points or more. Frank Black (class of 2000) is next up at 1,001. One of the men ahead of Clark — Marquise Kately (No. 2 all-time, 1,474 points) — was on hand on Thursday, along with his teammate from the 2002 state title team, John Tofi (17th all-time, with 881 points).
Clark — always demonstrative on the court — was particularly expressive on both ends of the floor. With 4:50 left in the third quarter, Clark took a rebound off a missed Kori McCoy free throw, went coast to coast and finished off the glass with a right-handed lay-up. He clenched his right fist as he turned back up the court, and gave it a little pump. The basket put Riordan up 46-24, and put a 9-0 first-half run by the Irish firmly in the rearview mirror.
“It was like, ‘Let’s go, we’ve got to keep going,'” Clark said. “That was the one to get us going.”
The Crusaders had gotten out to a 15-4 lead to start the game, but the Irish — behind superb board work from former soccer player Osin McCormack — crept closer. After McCormack scored to close the gap to 19-14 with 5:37 to go before the half, he got a rebound and pushed the ball up to McCoy for a no-good three. Speedy Cedric Reed Jr. was able to poke the rebound away from Chimae Ugbaja and get it to McCoy, who found Oscar Cheng for a lay-up, shrinking the lead to just three.
After an ugly air-ball three by Clark, McCormack drove the length of the floor and drew a foul going for a lay-up. His two free throws got Sacred Heart Cathedral within one, down 19-18, with 4:49 to go before halftime.
Clark then picked off an Elijah Flowers pass and drew a foul, hitting a pair of free throws. Over the final three minutes of the half, Riordan pulled away, as 5-foot-9 sophomore Trae McPherson nailed a three off an Ugbaja pass, then picked up a steal and ran the break with Donte Henderson to up the lead to nine. McPherson then went to the free throw line and nailed a pair of free throws.
Justice Turner ended the half with a long step-back two to stake the Crusaders to a 34-23 halftime lead. He held down the half with 10 points — more than any other player — but didn’t score after that. He finished with six rebounds and a pair of blocks.
The game was never again closer than it was at halftime. Riordan outscored the Irish 26-6 in the third quarter to pull away, and held Sacred Heart Cathedral to just 17 points in the second half. Monroe scored 13 of his 14 points after the break, and Clark scored 12 of his 20. Two other Crusaders scored in double figures, including Turner and Ugbaja (10 points on 3-of-5 shooting in 18 minutes. Donte Henderson had an efficient night, with seven points, seven rebounds and four steals.
McCormack was the only Irish player to score in double figures for the game, shooting 4-of-12 for 11 points, and pulling down a game-high 12 rebounds.Only three other Sacred Heart Cathedral players made as many as two field goals.
“We expected them to come out and have a sense of desperation,” Curtin said. “Coming off Bruce-Mahoney, playing your other city rival two nights later, we were expecting them to come out gang-busters. They played hard. I just think we just really made them uncomfortable with our pressure.”