AMERICAN CANYON — The resiliency and scrappiness that carried Riordan High School this season was on full display in the CIF Northern California Division III championship on Saturday night.
Riordan's grit and quarrel nearly brought it the fourth NorCal title in school history, but a nightmarish second quarter was too much to overcome.
A journey that changed its course after a heated halftime speech during a league game against rival Sacred Heart Cathedral, came to a heartbreaking end as the Crusaders suffered a gut-wrenching loss to Sir Francis Drake High School 54-49 at American Canyon High School.
Drake (26-7) scored 19 straight points in the first half, and led 27-12 in that pivotal second quarter, holding Riordan (19-12) scoreless for the first 7:27 as they ended up 2-of-15 from the field in the quarter. The Crusaders finished the game shooting 32 percent (24 percent in the first half).
“I thought the second quarter was the turning point of the game, that was our downfall, and it made us play catch up,” Riordan coach Rich Buckner said. “We couldn't figure out how to attack [Drake's] zone, and we were stuck on 12 for a long time.”
But Riordan nearly climbed out of it, rallying from a 15-point deficit to tie the game at 33-33 going into the fourth quarter. The Crusaders' full-court pressure defense forced Drake into 10 turnovers, but they ran out of gas and were outscored 9-4 in the final 3:20 of regulation.
Senior point Jiday Ugbaja — who committed to Sacramento State on Wednesday — spearheaded the Crusaders rally. After going 0-for-9 in the first half and scoring only one point, Ugbaja erupted for 20 second-half points and four steals — including 12 during a 15-4 spurt that helped the Crusaders get back into the game.
“I knew we would catch up in the third and fourth quarters,” Buckner said. “But we're not built to play catch-up. Even though we can do it, it just takes so much energy.”
While Riordan slowed Drake's biggest threats — limiting 6-foot-6 junior forward Jesse Hunt to 13 points and six rebounds, and held junior guard Malik Huff four points — the Crusaders had no answer for Pirates 6-5 junior forward Jasper Verduin.
Verduin stepped up for Drake, producing a game-high 23 points — including 11 during the 19-0 first half run — and added seven rebounds. His free throw with 20 seconds left was his biggest point of the game. It bounced high off of the back rim and hit the top of the backboard before going in.
That gave Drake a 50-46 lead, one Drake wouldn't relinquish to clinch the school's first state championship game appearance since 1982.
“This has been a great run for us,” Drake coach Doug Donnellan said. “Kind of an unexpected run, [but] these guys, two weeks ago decided to do something special. They're just playing their hearts out right now.”
If it wasn't for a great first-half performance by senior forward Chiefy Ugbaja, Riordan would've been blown out.
Chiefy Ugbaja — who tied for a team-high in points (21), added nine rebounds, four steals and two blocks — carried the scoring load for the Crusaders early on, scoring 13 of their 16 first-half points.
A season that had its bleak moments early on became special, but ended with them leaving American Canyon disappointed for the second consecutive season.
“We just can't get over the hump and get to the state championship, but hopefully these seniors have set the tone for the younger guys,” Buckner said. “We've had some lean years, but we've turned the corner in the last two years, and I think the future looks bright for us.”