Freshman point guard King-Jhsanni Wilhite scored a game-high 21 points for St. Ignatius on Tuesday night. (Ethan Kassel/Special to S.F. Examiner)

St. Ignatius squad shows encouraging signs despite recent losses

Back-to-back rivalry losses were certainly undesirable for any St. Ignatius basketball fan

Back-to-back rivalry losses were certainly undesirable for any St. Ignatius basketball fan, as evidenced by the near-silent Wildcats players as they left their locker room Tuesday night following a 57-54 defeat to the host Serra Padres, but the game in San Mateo was a contest full of encouraging signs and potential for a youthful roster despite the outcome.

Freshman point guard King-Jhsanni Wilhite scored a game-high 21 points and junior center Ethan Jew had six points and eight rebounds as the Wildcats gave the hosts all they could handle, cutting a late 12-point deficit to just one in the final moments before ultimately falling short in one of the most hostile environments any group of high schoolers could find themselves in.

“We just have these stretches that kill us, and sometimes we can’t bounce back,” head coach Rob Marcaletti said. “We threw punches, Serra threw punches, it was a typical Jungle Game. It just comes down to three or four possessions where Serra scores and we come down and don’t get a look that we want.”

The difference in the game, called Jungle Game since the 70s, ultimately came with Wilhite picking up his fourth foul late in the third quarter after knocking down five straight shots, allowing Serra (10-2, 2-0 WCAL) to score the final four points of the quarter, then stretching the lead to 55-43 with a 10-3 run in the fourth before uncharacteristically missing three straight 1-and-1s, giving the Wildcats one last shot. With four Wilhite free throws, a Malcolm McCray-Hill dunk and GC Toledo Rivera 3-pointer, they got the lead down to one possession, and when Dimitri Koutsogeorgas missed a free throw with 27.3 seconds left, they even had a chance to tie. Ultimately, Wilhite couldn’t find an open look from the outside and settled for a layup with eight seconds left, then picked up his fifth foul on the ensuing inbound.

Ryan Wilson finally stopped the string of missed free throws for the Padres, knocking down both with 7.5 seconds left, and Antonio Abeyta managed to foul Kourosh Kahn-Adle before St. Ignatius (5-7, 0-2) could get off a shot. Likely needing an offensive rebound, Kahn-Adle missed from the line with 4.2 left, and Julius Alcantara would get the rebound and send a pass the length of the court to end the game as security prevented the Serra fans from rushing the court in hopes of preventing the skirmishes that came at the conclusion of the 2019 game.

After the teams went into the half tied at 21, the lead changed hands six times in the third quarter as Wilhite caught fire, tying the game at 33 with a 3-pointer and giving the Wildcats their final lead at 37-36. He then picked up his third foul on the offensive end after SI forced a Padre miss and got called for his fourth just 17 seconds later, allowing Koutsogeorgas to head to the line and put the hosts back in front. A turnover in the backcourt on the next possession led to an uncontested Luke Bidinost layup for his only points of the night, putting Serra up three heading into the fourth.

“We kind of got a little lackadaisical at certain times, and Serra will burn you on that,” Marcaletti said. “Rather than be a two- or three-point game, now it’s an eight-point game, and we’ve got to battle back just to get it to three.”

With their young leader in foul trouble, the Wildcats struggled to move the ball as the final quarter began, scoring just three points over the next three minutes. Reserve Jevon Jesus hit a 3-pointer, just his team’s second of the game, to put Serra up six, and a drive from Koutsogeorgas increased that advantage to 45-37 before a McCray-Hill drive and Jackson Canady free throw. Even when Wilhite returned, the offensive struggles persisted as turnovers helped lead to six points by Wilson and four from Alcantara, creating a situation in which the hosts had to go cold from the charity stripe to give SI a shot.

Still, those sequences shouldn’t erase the efforts the Wildcats gave in a performance markedly better than Friday’s loss to Sacred Heart Cathedral. Sophomore Rory Kenneally played stingy defense and Jew, who went scoreless on Friday, was locked in a stimulating battle with 6-foot-9 Serra center Muti Shuman throughout the first half.

“I felt pretty good guarding him and on the offensive side, I could use my quickness to get in the post,” Jew said. “This team’s really promising. We’ve been showing great effort, although the results aren’t there. We could be a great team moving forward.”

As usual, the Padres had balance on the offensive end, with 11 points from Shuman, 10 from Wilson and nine from Alcantara, Jesus and Koutsogeorgas. Kahn-Adle finished with 10 for SI, while Wilhite had 17 in the second half.

“He’s a pretty good player,” interim Serra head coach Brian Carson said of the freshman point guard. “Their best basketball is probably ahead of them.”

The Wildcats will have a third straight rivalry game on Friday, a home meeting with Riordan (10-2, 1-1). The Crusaders bounced back from Saturday’s home loss to Serra with a 73-52 win at Sacred Heart Cathedral, getting 14 points and seven assists from Nevada commit Je’Lani Clark as Bryce Monroe sat out with a hip injury. Sophomore center Mor Seck had 13 points and nine rebounds, while the Fightin’ Irish got a game-high 21 points from sophomore Ray John Spears but were outscored 46-26 in the second half.

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