By John Baker
When deciding who to schedule in its opening game of the Sand Dune Classic, the St. Ignatius boys basketball team had a dilemma – pick an easy opponent to improve its chances of getting into the championship game or a tough one to harden them for the rigors ahead.
When the opener came around Thursday, it seemed tournament host took the latter road.
In an exciting matchup with perennial Central Coast Section contender Burlingame, the Wildcats built a big lead, lost it with just over 5 minutes left, then went on a strong run to beat the Panthers 59-54.
Previous games between the two teams have been close. The Wildcats won the 2010 tournament’s title game 49-47, when the Panthers missed a shot at the buzzer, but Burlingame (4-6), now under first-year coach Pete Harames, initially seemed like it would be little match for St. Ignatius (7-1).
Despite being at a disadvantage to a taller Burlingame team, St. Ignatius was able to pound the ball both inside and out in the first half. The Wildcats took a five-point lead into the second quarter and used effective matchups to limit Burlingame’s chances inside. St. Ignatius junior forward Julian Marcu held Burlingame’s 6-foot-7 center Nick Loew scoreless in the first half, while scoring 10 points of his own (he finished with a team-high 17) before the break, many coming after offensive rebounds.
“If I get any chance to get a rebound, I’m going to box them out,” Marcu said. “Everybody knows [boxing out] is a big thing on defense, but I try to incorporate it on offense because I’m not as big as the other guy.”
The Panthers got just one basket in the paint in the second quarter and would have trailed more than the 28-20 deficit at the halftime break if not for the outside shooting of senior guard Connor Haupt, who hit four of his six three-pointers in the first half and had a game-high 32 points in the loss.
“The defense gave us trouble and we were impatient in the first half,” Harames said. “[In the second half], we got it more into the middle and it freed some guys up for shots.”
Burlingame made up ground in the third quarter, as St. Ignatius shifted into a straight man-to-man defense, freeing up inside passing lanes. As a result, the Panthers finally were effective inside, with Loew scoring all seven of his points in the third quarter, and only trailed 45-42 heading into the fourth quarter.
Haupt made a 20-foot jump shot with 5:43 left to tie the game 45-45, but the Wildcats then went on a 10-0 run that effectively put the game away.
“That’s the fourth time this year that we’ve had a good-sized lead, lost the lead, then went on a little run like that,” said St. Ignatius head coach Tim Reardon. “Maybe that’s what it takes to wake them up. I’d like it if that ended today.”
Julian Marcu – 17
Trevor Dunbar – 14
Daniel MacLean-Vernic – 9
Matt Brown – 8
Albert Waters – 8
Connor Haupt – 32
Mikel Floro-Cruz – 8
Nick Loew – 7
Tyler Paratte – 5
Ronai Yuksel – 2