By Jeremy Balan
The St. Ignatius boys basketball team’s heart-stopping 42-40 win over rival Sacred Heart Cathedral gives the Wildcats ownership of the Bruce-Mahoney Trophy for the second consecutive year, but the game may be remembered more for the points left on the floor.
The Fightin’ Irish (10-3, 2-1) shot 3-of-11 from the free throw line, including five key misses in the fourth quarter, in the loss on Tuesday at USF’s War Memorial Gymnasium.
“You get in this atmosphere, in a close game, and you hope your guys can get the crowd out of their head and knock them down,” said Sacred Heart head coach Darrell Barbour. “In the end, that’s what got us.”
The free throws may have been the difference, but it was a three-point attempt from the corner by Martin Folan that touched every part of the rim, swirling in and out with 35 seconds left that was the dagger.
“That was absolutely crazy. I’ve never seen a ball go that far down and out,” Folan said. “I thought it was in. It just wasn’t our night, I guess.”
Folan had another opportunity to put the Irish on top with six seconds left, but the shot fell short, and after a E.J. Silvia free throw with .7 seconds remaining, the Irish could not get a shot off to beat the buzzer.
The Irish did everything they could to get back in the game after trailing 26-15 at the half, but whenever they came close or took the lead, St. Ignatius (10-4, 1-2) senior guard Johnny Mrlik had an answer.
Mrlik had a game-high 16 points, but eight came in the fourth quarter, including a cold-blooded three-pointer after Sacred Heart tied the game up at 33-33 early in the quarter and a three-point play on a driving layup after the Irish took a 39-38 lead with just over two minutes remaining.
“Last year, I was more of a spot-up shooter, but this year I’m taking the ball up more and trying to distribute,” Mrlik said. “Our team set me up great, driving and then kicking out to me. I just had some open shots and got lucky today.”
While the dramatic ending may cause some to forget, it was the early St. Ignatius defensive effort that held the Irish to 15 first-half points and a season-low 40 total.
“We did a great job in the first half pushing the guys out in the post,” said St. Ignatius head coach John DeBenedetti. “In the third quarter the guys got a little tired and we gave up a couple of dunks, but overall it was just great defense.”
The St. Ignatius defense was led early by standout sophomore forward Stephen Domingo, who had three blocks in the first quarter alone, getting the St. Ignatius crowd involved early. But Domingo, who averages scoring in double-digits, was held to just four points on 1-of-10 shooting from the floor.
“What I was most proud of about Stephen tonight was that he played a complete game,” DeBenedetti said. “It’s hard, when you’re a person who’s used to scoring and you’re not, it’s easy for it to influence the rest of your game. He really showed his composure and it really shows his progress.”
While Domingo and Mrlik were held scoreless in the first quarter, the Wildcats got a significant lift from unsung senior forward Silvia, who scored their first eight points of the game and hit his first six shots from the floor en route to a 13-point performance.
“He’s just, plain and simple, a warrior,” DeBenedetti said. “What you see is what you get. He puts his emotion right on the very edge and he was phenomenal tonight.”
Sacred Heart’s late surge was led by junior forward Joshua Fox, who had nine of his team-high 13 points in the second half, but it will be his two missed free throws with 1:38 remaining that will haunt the Irish.
“He’s a player and what I love about him is that he’s versatile,” Barbour said of Fox. “He’s only going to get better and better because he wants to be good, just like this team. I’m proud of my team, I mean, we didn’t win tonight, but we’ll bounce back and be in the thick of things in the end.”
The win secures the coveted Bruce-Mahoney trophy for the Wildcats, after the football team’s win in the fall, rendering the baseball game inconsequential, at least as far as the series is concerned.
“I’m sure the baseball coach will want to take me out for a drink and a steak right now,” DeBenedetti said. “We pick each other up. Last year we dropped this game and they bailed us out on their end. We picked them up this time. That’s what we do as a coaching staff and as a school.”
Johnny Mrlik – 16
E.J. Silvia – 13
Nick Johnson – 6
Stephen Domingo – 4
Antonio Aguilar – 3
Sacred Heart Cathedral
Joshua Fox – 13
Taylor Johns – 10
Martin Folan – 8
Herman Pratt – 7
Zach Tapel – 2