By Jeremy Balan
St. Ignatius College Prep nearly gave up a 20-point third-quarter lead, but withstood a late frenetic run from Valley Christian of San Jose to escape with a 46-40 win in the second round of the CIF-Central Coast Section Division III playoffs on Thursday at St. Ignatius.
St. Ignatius (12-14), the tournament’s eighth seed, will host top-seeded Mills High School of Millbrae (20-7) in the quarterfinal round on Saturday.
Up 33-15 at the halftime break, the Wildcats only scored 13 points in the second half as the hot-shooting Warriors (9-18) cut the lead to 43-40 with 27 seconds remaining in the game.
“In our previous two games [with St. Ignatius] we went back-and-forth,” said Valley Christian Head Coach Eric Scharrenberg. “We felt that if we chipped away [at the lead], we had a shot at the end.”
The Valley Christian run stalled, however, as the Wildcats hit three key free throws down the stretch to seal the victory.
“It was two different games,” said St. Ignatius Head Coach John DeBenedetti. “Our offensive production broke down [in the second half]. They just executed better in the second half. We had a couple bad mistakes and they hit some timely threes.”
St. Ignatius opened up a 22-6 lead at the end of the first quarter behind 13 points from junior forward Johnny Mrlik, who finished with a game-high 19 points.
Mrlik went through a considerable scoring drought in the middle quarters, but had four of the Wildcats’ five fourth-quarter points, including two clutch free throws with 25 seconds remaining.
“He’s a pure shooter,” DeBenedetti said of Mrlik. “He hit a key layup that buoyed our spirits in the fourth quarter and turned the momentum back to our direction.”
While Mrlik went cold in the second and third quarters, senior point guard Michael Crocker carried the offensive load for the Wildcats, scoring 14 points on the game, to go along with several key assists.
“He played a steady game,” DeBenedetti said of Crocker. “He’s not afraid to take the big shot and got into a groove in the first half. He really started to blossom this year.”
Although the ninth-seeded Warriors shot the lights out in the second half, the Warriors struggled mightily in the first half.
They relied heavily on senior center Matt Carroll, who came off the bench to score a team-high 17 points.
“Any time [Carroll] touches the ball he is an and-one threat,” DeBenedetti said. “Because of his size, you almost have to foul him.”
Both Carroll and sophomore forward Cameron Stewart arrived five minutes before game time, coming from the baseball team’s season opener at San Benito of Hollister.
The only other consistent offensive threat for the Warriors was senior point guard Kyle Travis, who had 12 points.
Not including Carroll and Travis, Valley Christian shot 1-for-12 from the field in the first half.
Even though St. Ignatius will have to face heavily favored Mills on Saturday, DeBenedetti is somewhat relieved that he won’t have to face another West Catholic Athletic League rival in the quarterfinals.
“No disrespect to Mills, they deserve the number one seed,” Benedetti said. “But we’ve played 16 straight WCAL games. It’s going to be nice to see somebody else.”