Early in this title tilt Saturday night, it was decided by a crew of media and game-operations staff that there was one fitting title for the region’s elite high school programs.
“Big boy basketball.”
It was frenetic, it was fast, it was fun – and it was heartache for the Sheldon Huskies again while Modesto Christian takes on the task of clearing more space in its bloated trophy case.
With just 9.8 seconds left in the game, Junior Ballard hit a 35-foot bomb as he rushed to beat the expiring shot clock, and the Crusaders added two last-second free throws to register a dramatic 60-56 triumph in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I championship at Spanos Center.
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It’s the 19th section banner for the Crusaders, far and away a record, and it was the third crushing finals loss for Sheldon in four seasons. Folsom rallied for a 50-49 win in 2015, and last season Woodcreek won 69-68 in the closing seconds.
Sheldon has five titles and has reached the finals seven times this decade. Both teams are locks for the prestigious CIF Northern California Open Division tournament that starts Friday, but Sheldon will enter the field as one angry lot.
The Huskies (26-5) had their 19-game winning streak halted, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort or talent. Modesto Christian (28-3) has won 15 consecutive games, including victories over Jesuit and Capital Christian this postseason.
“As a basketball player, you practice those kinds of shots, but not that one,” Ballard said. “That one – I just let it go. I just let it go. I don’t know what happened. I really don’t. It’s crazy.”
Dale Currie, Sheldon’s terrific energizer guard, led all scorers with 24 points, driving, dishing and hitting 3-pointers. The senior was presented with the game’s sportsmanship award, in part, perhaps, for how classy he was in handling what he hoped would be his big moment.
After Ballard’s 3 gave MC a 58-56 lead, Currie was fouled while dribbling to set up a play. A good free-throw shooter, Currie missed the front-end of a 1-and-1, and Modesto Christian’s Tyler Williams made two free throws with 1.1 seconds left after he grabbed Currie’s miss to account for the final score.
“That shot that he made,” Currie said of Ballard, still stunned. “Wow. And me going to the free-throw line, with everyone on my back, that was my time to be clutch, and I didn’t do it.”
Sheldon coaches and players wouldn’t allow Currie to take the blame, because even if it had gone to overtime, it’s still anyone’s game.
What hurt Sheldon was a lack of scoring. Currie was the only Huskies player to hit for double figures, and his team shot just 37 percent. Chris Wriedt had nine points and 12 rebounds for Sheldon, and Ronald Agebsar had eight points and 14 rebounds. Those seniors epitomized their team’s grit.
Ballard had 10 points and Tyler Williams notched 13 for Modesto Christian, a tremendous team that goes into the Open Division bracket as the No. 3 seed. Sheldon is No. 4, and will host San Joaquin Memorial of Fresno on Friday. The seedings were released Sunday.
What irked both coaches and a good many of the large crowd was the frequency of offensive fouls called by a three-man officiating crew. The referees are being evaluated by other officials in the stands, not for judgment but for mechanics, and no play in this sport is more emphatic than a bang-bang, player-control foul.
There were six of those called, five on screens, a stunning amount for two fundamentally sound teams. The game was otherwise played with a good flow. What infuriated Sheldon fans all the more after the game was hearing a public address announcer say over the loud speakers that this was one of the best basketball games he had seen, and how the referees did a “tremendous job.”
Modesto Christian fans cheered and Sheldon fans jeered. It was that sort of night.