By Bonta Hill
If the 35th annual Leo LaRocca Sand Dune Classic was any indication of what the St. Ignatius boys basketball season will be like, the Wildcats faithful are in for some exciting, gut-wrenching ball games.
The Wildcats (8-2), who had to play two games Wednesday to advance to the tournament championship, survived a battle against a physical Burlingame team and won another thrilling nail-biter, 49-47, to win the Sand Dune Classic on Thursday.
All-Tournament team selection Stephen Domingo had a game-high 18 points for the Wildcats, and tournament Most Valuable Player Johnny Mrlik added 16 points before fouling out late in the fourth quarter.
“It feels real good, especially with the great tradition this tournament has,” Domingo said. “We really bogged down defensively, and at the end of the day if we make our free throws, play solid defense, and make our shots, we’ll win games.”
St. Ignatius’ zone defense, which was solid all tournament, stymied the Panthers into 4-of-20 shooting in the first half, as the Wildcats carried a 25-20 lead into the break behind Mrlik’s 11 points.
“This is the first game all year where I felt we struggled to get good shots,” said Burlingame head coach Jeff Dowd. “It’s a testament to [St. Ignatius] because they were really defending us, but a couple times I felt we had shooters open and we chose to force up a tough shot.”
St. Ignatius couldn’t shake Burlingame throughout though, as they matched the Wildcats’ defensive intensity, but Domingo’s eight third-quarter points would help stretch St. Ignatius’s lead to 38-28.
With Mrlik in foul trouble, Burlingame would go on a 11-2 run to start the final frame, cutting the Wildcat lead to 40-39. Conner Huapt, who led the Panthers with a team-high 16 points, hit two three-pointers during the run as Burlingame stole the momentum.
As spectators witnessed all week, the Wildcats pulled out another grueling victory, as Huapt’s three-point attempt with three seconds remaining fell short.
The Wildcats got key free throws down the stretch by Matt Quintana for the second night in a row to offset a poor quarter as a whole from the free throw line.
St. Ignatius shot 7-of-18 from the line in the fourth quarter, as they missed having Mrlik on the court.
Mrlik acknowledged that the Wildcats would have to clean things up with their West Catholic Athletic League opener against Serra on the horizon.
“We can’t make that a habit and we have to hit are free throws,” Mrlik said. “They play like Serra, they get their arms and bodies into you, but it’s a good win, we just have to practice even more intense now.”
With a few days off to rest their legs after a grueling tournament, St. Ignatius head coach John DeBenedetti knows this is the just the beginning of things to come as the WCAL will be just as tough.
“[Burlingame] is a good team, a WCAL caliber team,” DeBenedetti said. “Finishing games off at the free throw line is something we need to get used to do. We’re going to enjoy the night and have fun, and we’re back to the grind and have fun. But, there is no such thing as rest here.”
Stephen Domingo – 18
Johnny Mrlik – 16
Nick Johnson – 5
Mat Collins – 3
Matt Quintana – 3
Conner Haupt – 16
Zac Grotz – 14
Rodrigo Puliceno – 10
Adam Feinberg – 2
Dean Ferrari – 2