Back in NorCal title game, Riordan looks to finish the job

The road to the CIF Northern California Division III boys’ basketball championship has been bumpy for Riordan High School to say the least.

The Crusaders (19-11) were overlooked in the rugged West Catholic Athletic League after starting 0-3, however, they are the lone team from the league still standing.

After defeating Campolindo 72-68 in an overtime thriller Tuesday night, overcoming Andrew Zolintakis’ 38 points, Riordan will take on Sir Francis Drake High School on Saturday at American Canyon High School at 8 p.m. with a NorCal title and spot in the state championship game on the line. Riordan defeated Drake 51-50 on Dec. 6 in the Crusader Classic.

The turning point of the season for Riordan? A heated halftime speech on Jan. 14 when Riordan was down 20 at the half to city rival Sacred Heart Cathedral.

“It is sweet to look back, even though I don’t want to at this moment, but the ride has been bumpy throughout the year,” said Riordan coach Rich Buckner, who won his 100th career game against Campolindo. “Those first three league [games] of the year we were getting outworked, but since then we’ve been playing full-throttle and matching opponents’ intensity.”

Led by senior cousins Jiday and Chiefy Ugbaja, and the leadership of senior Zach Masoli, Riordan rallied from losing two games in the Central Coast Section Open Division playoffs to return to a NorCal championship game for the second straight year. Last year in the NorCal Division IV title game, Riordan lost to Cardinal Newman 73-66.

“The unknown factor is wiped out now,” Buckner said. “We know what type of gym we’re going to, the atmosphere we will be playing in. We’ll be a lot less wide-eyed when we tip-off Saturday.”

Drake (25-7), like its counterpart, has been on a roll. Nobody on the Pirates has been hotter than 6-foot-6 junior center Jesse Hunt.

In Drake’s last two games, Hunt’s inside-out game helped him score a combined 64 points against Miramonte and Sacred Heart Cathedral. His performance against the Fightin’ Irish on Saturday was special as he blistered them for 39 points in the upset.

Hunt is complemented by junior guard Malik Huff, who chipped in 17 points in Drake’s semifinal win against Miramonte.

“That’s the focal point, those are the two guys we’ll try to key on, but any team that makes it this far, it’s not about only two guys,” Buckner said. “Although we’re focusing on Hunt and Huff, we’re not sleeping on the other guys by no means.”

Drake will have its hands full as well, especially with Jiday Ugbaja and Chiefy Ugbaja. Before fouling out late in regulation against Campolindo, Jiday Ugbaja carried the Crusaders, scoring a team-high 29 points while setting the Riordan single-season record for 3-pointers.

On Wednesday night, Jiday Ugbaja accepted a full scholarship to Sacramento State.

“I’ve been coaching Jiday since his sophomore season and to see his maturity and development has been a pleasure,” Buckner said. “A lot of other guards get talked about in the Bay Area and I think they forget about Jiday. All he’s done is lead his team to two NorCal title game appearances.”

Not to be overlooked is Chiefy Ugbaja, who had a monster game against Campolindo. His 22 points, 16 rebounds, three steals and blocks were huge for Riordan, as well as sophomore guard Eric Galindo’s 17 points.

The toughness of Masoli, who does the dirty work for the Crusaders, coupled with the resolve of the entire Riordan team has the Crusaders brimming with confidence heading into Saturday.

“Last year we had a lot of talent, but we didn’t use it,” Jiday Ugbaja said. “This year, we have less talent but we’re more of a team collectively. We all hang out off the court, and that I think that has helped us this season, and will help us [this Saturday].”

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By John Krolik Special to The Examiner