By Jeremy Balan
It’s been five years since the Riordan boys basketball team has had a winning season, but a familiar early-season benchmark has also been missing.
It’s been even longer since Riordan has won a Crusader Classic tournament championship.
Riordan’s 52-40 win over visiting St. Joseph Notre Dame on Saturday night not only gave head coach Rich Buckner his first Crusader Classic title in his six-year tenure, but might be the first sign that the Crusaders are back to winning ways.
“We haven’t won this thing in six years and it just feels good,” Buckner said. “Playing in third-place games, consolation championships – that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. You always want to be in the championship of your own tournament. To play the caliber of team we did tonight and to play like we did says wonders about the guys in that locker room.”
The Crusaders (3-0) handled the Pilots’ (3-1) active and aggressive 2-3 zone defense masterfully first half. Patient and collected possessions led to wide-open shots from the perimeter, and behind 12 first-half points from junior forward Bobby Arenas, Riordan carried a 30-19 lead into the break.
In the third quarter, however, the good possessions ended and were replaced by shaky ones.
Facing essentially the same defense all game, the Crusaders were confounded by the zone in the third quarter and scored just six points in the frame on 2-of-9 shooting from the field. The Pilots went on a 12-0 run to start the second half and took a 31-30 lead with 2:33 remaining in the third quarter.
“It never changes, whether it’s zone or man [defense], you always want to penetrate a defense and work inside out,” Buckner said. “In the third quarter, we were passing around the perimeter and weren’t attacking the paint.”
Riordan got the lead back and held a 36-34 advantage heading into the fourth quarter, then went on a run of its own.
After St. Joseph tied the game at 36-36 early in the fourth, the Crusaders closed out the game on a 16-4 run, spurred by guard Jiday Ugbaja. The 5-foot-11
senior junior scored just seven points, but five came in the fourth quarter. He also had a crucial block that led to Arenas’ third three-pointer of the game, swiped two steals and dished out an assist on another Arenas jumper to give the Crusaders a 47-39 lead with 2 minutes remaining.
“Jiday was struggling up to that point, but that’s the beauty of basketball,” Buckner said. “He was huge for us in the fourth quarter and he was probably the difference in the game right there in that 2- or 3-minute stretch.”
Arenas finished with a game-high 17 points and was the most consistent scoring threat for the Crusaders, but it was his effort on the defensive end that may have been most important.
After Riordan center Graham Gilleran got into foul trouble tasked with guarding bulky St. Joseph junior forward Temidayo Yussef, Buckner shifted Arenas and fellow forward Christian Hernandez to guard the 6-foot-7 post man.
Yussef scored all nine of the Pilots’ points in the first quarter, scored four points in both the second and third quarters, but was held scoreless by Arenas and Hernandez in the fourth.
The pair of Riordan forwards are both listed at 6-foot-1, but used their sturdy builds to muscle Yussef in the paint.
“They did it with their lower body, they were very aggressive and they got to him quickly,” said St. Joseph head coach Don Lippi. “They were pushing him out of there and he’s more of a finesse player right now than he is a post player, but now we know he has to work on that.”
Bobby Arenas – 17
Geru Mabrey – 9
Jiday Ugbaja – 7
Usman Hameed – 6
Christian Hernandez – 6
St. Joseph Notre Dame
Temidayo Yussef – 17
Marc Voisenat – 8
Justin Brown – 7
Marcus Harris – 4
Two players tied with 2 points