It’s not often that a coach can point to a game, let alone a specific moment, as the turning point for a season heading in the wrong direction.
But Riordan High School boys’ basketball coach Rich Buckner can quickly reference just exactly when his team was able to rebound from its rocky start to the season.
“We were playing Sacred Heart Cathedral, and we’re really getting beat up in the first half,” Buckner said. “We had already lost our first two league games, so people were frustrated. There were definitely some choice words in the locker room at halftime, from both the players and coaches. We decided that we weren’t going to fold and give up on the season. We were determined to fight together to turn things around.”
While the Crusaders actually lost that Jan. 14 contest against their intercity rivals, they’ve been on a tear ever since, winning nine of their past 11 games to finish the regular season at 16-8 overall. By virtue of their 68-44 drubbing of Bellarmine on Feb. 15, Riordan secured a fourth-place finish in the hyper-competitive West Catholic Athletic League, guaranteeing it a spot in the Central Coast Section Open Division playoffs.
And while Buckner attributed the team’s late-season success to its collective resolve following the SHC game, he also knows that the Crusaders wouldn’t be where they are if not for the immense contributions from Jiday and Chiefy Ugbaja, his two senior leaders who are also cousins.
Jiday is a heady 6-foot point guard who has attracted Division I college offers from the University of the Pacific and Sacramento State, according to Buckner. Chiefy is a 6-6 slashing forward who is getting interest from Division II schools like Chico State.
The two combine to average 35 points a game for the Crusaders, according to MaxPreps.com, often providing the overwhelming majority of the team’s points in WCAL play. In Riordan’s regular-season finale against Bellarmine, Jiday set a school record with seven 3-pointers en route to 23 points and Chiefy chipped in with 12 points and nine rebounds.
“Night in and night out, teams know that they’re going to be our focal points offensively,” Buckner said. “Defenses are always geared up to stop those two, but they always manage to find ways to come through for us.”
Buckner said there is a special chemistry between the Ugbaja cousins.
“They might as well be brothers,” Buckner said. “They talk to each other like their brothers, they get into arguments like their brothers, and when they get out on the court together, there is this sixth sense between them that you can tell comes from being family.”
If the Crusaders are to navigate a successful postseason run, they’ll need to get contributions from the Ugbaja cousins’ supporting cast. Buckner said that sophomore shooting guard Eric Galindo and senior forward Zach Masoli, the quarterback of Riordan’s football team, are likely candidates to step up in the playoffs.
Unlike last year, when Riordan advanced to the Northern California Division IV finals, the Crusaders will be playing in the more competitive Division III postseason tournament this year. Riordan will begin what it hopes is a lenghty postseason against SHC today in the first round of the WCAL playoffs, which will be going on hiatus next year.
“We know we have a long, tough road ahead of us,” Buckner said. “But we’ve proven to ourselves that we’re capable of overcoming these kind of challenges.”
WCAL boys’ basketball playoffs
No. 8 Valley Christian at No. 1 Mitty, 7:30 p.m.
No. 7 Bellarmine at No. 2 Serra, 7 p.m.
No. 6 St. Francis at No. 3, St. Ignatius, 7:30 p.m.
No. 5 Sacred Heart Cathedral at No. 4 Riordan, 7 p.m.