The Bears take on Berkeley during the 61st Crusader Classic on Wednesday night. (Ethan Kassel/Special to S.F. Examiner)

New leaders emerge as Mission basketball ekes out tourney opener

Reports of Mission’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Reports of Mission’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

No, the Bears didn’t turn in a masterpiece in the first hoop game of the 61st Crusader Classic on Wednesday night, but they beat Berkeley 69-66.

“These guys are playing hard, but it’s pretty sloppy at this point in the year,” head coach Arnold Zelaya said. “The effort’s there, but we’re not executing really well.”

Considering that they graduated the three players who made up more than half their scoring last year, including AAA Player of the Year Ben Knight, they still can pressure teams up and down the floor and create turnovers that lead to transition points. That was especially on display early in the game as the Bears led by 11 in the first quarter, then created distance from the Yellowjackets in the third before holding on for dear life down the stretch.

Berkeley (0-1) led by five early in the third thanks to the efforts of Jamir Thomas, who scored a game-high 32 points, but a three-pointer from point guard Andre Villarino gave the Bears a 40-39 lead, an advantage they’d never relinquish.

“This year, it’s really about being a leader,” Villarino said. “Over the summer, I’ve developed skills handling the ball, holding the ball and getting stronger.”

Strength was also on display from junior Julian Neal, who led Mission (1-1) with 17 points and 11 rebounds, including a one-handed dunk with four minutes left to open up a 60-50 lead.

Neal, whose family moved back to San Francisco after he had spent his sophomore year at Oakley-Freedom, led a balanced attack that outpaced Thomas’ huge night. Villarino added 16, Noah Lee chipped in 11, sophomore Maurice Oliver finished with nine and Reggie Torno added eight. Still, the Bears suffered a barrage of turnovers and missed free throws toward the end of the game, making the same mistakes that had cost them in a season-opening loss at Albany-St. Mary’s on Monday. The Yellowjackets were able to cut a nine-point gap to three in less than 90 seconds, but Villarino finally hit a free throw with 4.5 seconds left after three straight misses and Berkeley’s half-court heave fell short at the buzzer.

Riordan 67, Mills 19: Two technical fouls for dunks during warmups put the Crusaders in a 3-0 hole before the game even began, but they wouldn’t allow another point until the second half in an elite defensive performance. Michael Matsuno, who made three of four free throws after the technical fouls were assessed, hit another from the line 14 seconds into the third quarter to make it 25-4, and the Vikings would finally get their first field goal 41 seconds later on a basket from Taine DiOro. Mills (0-1) trailed 41-6 after three, though Jaden Tung scored 11 in the fourth quarter for the visitors. Riordan (2-0) got 10 points apiece from Je’Lani Clark and Mor Seck, with Seck adding 12 rebounds on a night where head coach Joey Curtin was able to tap deep into his bench, getting three blocks from senior Toyo Kano.

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