By Bonta Hill
Coming into the week, things were looking a lot like last season, as St. Ignatius started league play with losses to Bellarmine and Serra.
With the daunting task of playing league favorites Sacred Heart Cathedral and Archbishop Mitty, many expected the Wildcats to drop to 0-4 in the West Catholic Athletic League.
The memo didn’t get over to St. Ignatius (10-4, 2-2), however, as they’ve lifted themselves back into the league race with a stunning 46-39 win over visiting Mitty (12-2, 3-1) on Thursday.
Johnny Mrlik continued his solid play in big games, leading the Wildcats with 16 points, and Stephen Domingo added 15, as St. Ignatius survived this physical and grinding game that saw bodies flying all night long.
“Our guys were still riding high from [the Bruce-Mahoney win over Sacred Heart], and they’re riding high in terms of confidence,” said St. Ignatius head coach John DeBenedetti. “Not overconfidence, not just too busy saying, ‘Wow Tuesday’s win was great,’ but it was more of, ‘We can do this, we can get better’ and these guys are really starting to believe in themselves.”
Mitty came into the game as one the top-ranked teams in the state, but after jumping out to a 7-0 lead in the opening moments of the game, they struggled offensively.
A lot of that had to do with the Wildcats defense, as they held the Monarchs to a season-low in points, and held them to 33 percent shooting from the floor. Mitty beat themselves from the free throw line as well, shooting a paltry 6-of-20.
“All these teams in the WCAL are great defensive teams and historically this league has been about defense and we’re trying to replicate the teams in the past that have been defensive stoppers,” Mrlik said. “We said coming in that if we hold them to under 40 points, we’ll win. We did just that.”
Offensively, St. Ignatius wasn’t great either, especially in the first half, where they shot 25 percent from the floor, yet they only found themselves down 20-18 at halftime.
But after the break, the Wildcats came out soaring, as Domingo scored St. Ignatius’s first seven points in the third quarter and the Wildcats went on an 18-2 run that saw them jump to a 36-24 lead.
The Monarchs became unglued in the third frame as they went over six minutes of game time without a point, and shot 3-for-10 overall in the quarter.
“We got out of our rhythm in [the third quarter], but that had a lot to do with St. Ignatius,” said Mitty head coach Tim Kennedy. “We had some open looks, but not the best ball movement we’ve had this season. I thought we lost our poise a little bit with some of the calls on the floor, and we talked about controlling what we could control. We didn’t keep our focus and we weren’t ready to go.”
Mitty had one final surge though, as Kyle Toth, who led Mitty with 17 points, tried to will the Monarchs back in the fourth quarter. Mitty would cut the Wildcats lead to five points on three different occasions, but St. Ignatius held on.
The Wildcats committed seven turnovers in the final frame, but went 6-for-8 at the free throw line in the closing moments to seal the upset.
Mitty standout sophomore Aaron Gordon was held to seven points, including a night he’d like to forget at the free throw line, where he hit 1-of-12 attempts.
After starting 0-2, the Wildcats have risen back into the conversation in the WCAL on the strength of their defense.
“We knew that if we came out here and hit them in the mouth first, we knew that we could hang with them,” Domingo said. “The coaching staff has made defense a cornerstone of this team and we’ve bought into it were trying to ride it as far as we can. People have been underestimating us but I think this team can do big things if we can play defense.”
Johnny Mrlik – 16
Stephen Domingo – 15
Nick Johnson – 5
Antonio Aguilar – 4
Mat Collins – 4
Kyle Toth – 17
Aaron Gordon – 7
Colin Wan – 7
Neil Vranicar – 3
Two tied with 2 points