By Jeremy Balan
Sacred Heart Cathedral senior point guard Khalil James kept the Irish offense alfoat all night against visiting Riordan on Wednesday, so it was no shock the ball was in his hands with the game on the line.
Down by a point with 17 seconds remaining, James got the ball on the perimeter, drove to his left and into the key, drew an extra Riordan defender and dished the ball to unattended teammate Liam O’Reilly under the basket.
The junior forward then made a contested layup to give the Irish the final edge in a 55-54 West Catholic Athletic League win.
The assist was James’ fifth of the game, which went along with a game-high 18 points.
“He just went and made a play,” said Sacred Heart head coach Darrell Barbour. “To that kid’s credit, he’s not afraid. He’s not afraid to go and make a play. He believes in himself and he knows he’s going to make the right play.”
Riordan (10-6, 1-5) had one last chance with 5 seconds remaining after O’Reilly’s go-ahead layup and pushed up the floor, but lost control of the ball, and after a scrum, failed to get a shot off.
The final Sacred Heart score was the ninth lead change of the fourth quarter and gave Riordan its second straight one-point loss. Other than an 11-point loss to Serra, the rest of the Crusaders’ WCAL losses have been by single digits.
Three baskets by Riordan junior forward Chiefy Ugbaja and another by point guard Geru Mabrey gave the Crusaders four separate leads in the fourth quarter, but they could not put the Irish (12-4, 5-1) away.
“I have to look myself in the mirror and see what I need to do in crunch time to help this team win,” said Riordan head coach Rich Buckner. “We’re all in there asking ourselves what went wrong and I can’t pin all the blame on the kids. When we lose by one point here, two points there, it’s gotta fall on my shoulders at some point.”
Ugbaja had a team-high 17 points and nine rebounds, and the Crusaders thrived in the paint, most notably in the third quarter, when they scored 16 of their 24 points in the lane. In large parts of the second and fourth quarters, though, Riordan ran into trouble when it settled for jump shots.
“We try to stress getting the ball inside, whether we shoot it in there or not,” Buckner said. “On our good possessions, the ball was going inside-out. On our bad possessions, it was either one pass or no pass and a quick shot.”
In the second quarter, the Crusaders shot 2-of-11 from the field (the only two field goals came from Ugbaja in the paint) and the Irish ended the first half on a 10-0 run to take a 34-21 lead into halftime. After the break, Riordan came out inspired and outscored the Irish 24-9 in the third quarter to take a 45-43 lead into the final frame.
“On offense we were bad – bad floor balance, bad rhythm – we were just out of sorts,” Barbour said. “We had that lead and we relaxed, but they also made some shots. You have to give them credit, because they got the momentum. Our lack of offensive efficiency – I mean we stopped scoring – ignited their offense.”
Sacred Heart junior guard DeOndre Otis was hot early and scored 11 first-half points, but went cold in the second. Without starting guard Herman Pratt, who missed much of the first half and all of the second with an eye injury, James still kept his cool. With Riordan surging, James scored 10 of Sacred Heart’s 21 points in the second half and doled out four assists.
“When Herman got hurt – DeOndre and Khalil have that experience,” Barbour said. “They played in a state championship game, so it doesn’t surprise me when we win close games. Our psyche and our approach is to play well enough to win. Whether it’s one point or five points, put yourself in position to win.”
The close result also emphasizes trends for both teams. Not much separated the two teams on Wednesday night, but the Irish are in second place because they have shown a knack for winning close games, while the Crusaders are in seventh because they haven’t.
“There are some frustrated teenagers and some numb teenagers in that locker room, but what we don’t have are teenagers that are going to give up,” Buckner said. “It’s frustrating, but we have hope. We’re so close, that when we see these teams again, it might be a different story.”
Sacred Heart Cathedral
Khalil James – 18
DeOndre Otis – 11
David Parsons – 9
Liam O’Reilly – 8
Yanoj Jackson – 5
Chiefy Ugbaja – 17
Geru Mabrey – 13
Bobby Arenas – 12
Frankie Ferrari – 10
Jiday Ugbaja – 2