By Jeremy Balan
Archbishop Riordan High School supporters shouldn’t be surprised with the visiting Crusaders’ 60-53 loss to St. Ignatius in the CIF-Central Coast Section Division III quarterfinals on Saturday. The loss was indicative of their entire season — close, but not enough.
The Crusaders (9-18) actually carried a 38-33 lead into the fourth quarter, but it was a spark from an unlikely source that allowed the Wildcats (17-9) to outscore Riordan 27-15 and pull away steadily in the final frame.
The spark came from senior guard Luke Pappas, who had all of his eight points in the crucial fourth on 3-of-3 shooting from the floor, including two three-pointers.
“I just did what I could to help the team,” Pappas said. “For the seniors, that could have been our last half of basketball, so I just tried to bring energy off the bench.”
While Pappas’ late input may have been the difference, the undisputed star, as he has been all year for the Wildcats, was senior guard Johnny Mrlik, who had a game-high 23 points to go along with a team-high 12 rebounds.
Mrlik and sophomore forward Stephen Domingo each had seven points in the final quarter, exploiting the Riordan defense that held down the Wildcats for the first three quarters.
When the Crusader defense would go to man-to-man, Domingo’s 6-foo-7 frame provided a mismatch against any Riordan defender, and when they went to zone, Mrlik picked apart the defense from behind the three-point arc.
The offense flowed freely in the fourth quarter, and came to an explosive head midway through the frame, when Domingo converted a steal into a breakaway two-handed dunk.
“They had some success early on [stopping Mrlik], but we needed other guys to step up and they did just that,” said St. Ignatius head coach John DeBenedetti. “They pushed us to the limit tonight and when you play someone three times in a year, there aren’t many surprises. I don’t know if we lucked out in the end or pulled it out, but it’s a win and we’re happy to move on to Wednesday.”
Mrlik was the most consistent scorer on the floor, but it was a defensive play right before the half that may have swung the momentum of the entire game. Early on Riordan senior guard Aaron Anderson locked down Mrlik with a tight man defense, but on a fast-break opportunity with just over three minutes remaining in the half, Anderson was called for a charge, taken by Mrlik, that gave him his third foul.
“I just didn’t want him to dunk on me. I just tried to take it so he wouldn’t jump over me,” Mrlik said. “I think his shins hit my face, so that shows the kind of athleticism he’s got right there.”
The foul pulled Anderson out of the game, and altered the way he played defense the rest of the game. It also drew the scorn of the Riordan crowd and head coach Rich Buckner.
“It was a questionable call,” Buckner said. “That’s a block or a no call in my estimation. With Johnny standing practically underneath the basket, Aaron had already released the ball. I thought that was one that they missed and it was a momentum changer.”
Anderson, Riordan’s senior leader all season, still finished with a team-high 14 points in his final high school game.
“It’s going to be really tough to see him go,” Buckner said. “You see how we play when he’s not in the game. We’re a much better team with him out there. I’ve had him for three years, so from a personal point of view I’m sad to see him go, and from a basketball standpoint, we’re going to have to find someone to make up for his production.”
For the Wildcats, the season lives on, with third seed Burlingame up next in the semifinals. St. Ignatius bested the Burlingame 49-47 in the Sand Dune tournament championship game in December, but the Wildcats are also hoping for another shot at rival and top-seeded Sacred Heart Cathedral, which will play Aptos in the other semifinal.
“When we lost to Bellarmine [in the first round of the West Catholic Athletic League] playoffs, we knew it would set up this way, with [Sacred Heart] lining up with us in the final,” Pappas said. “We’re looking forward to it, but we’ve got to take care of Burlingame first.”
Johnny Mrlik – 23
Stephen Domingo – 14
Luke Pappas – 8
Antonio Aguilar – 6
Two players tied with 3 points
Aaron Anderson – 14
Graham Gilleran – 12
Brandon Edison – 9
D.J. Harvey – 8
Jordan Dougherty – 6