Everyone wore a long face. Some were bent over, tugging their shorts.
Defeat after a season-defining 17-game winning streak struck a somber tone for the Sacramento Dragons on Saturday night at Sleep Train Arena, but there was one upbeat fellow in the mix.
The coach, Derek Swafford.
Despite his team falling to Modesto Christian 49-46 in a physical and at times fast Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship game, Swafford was encouraged about his young group. The season isn’t over by any means, as all section finalists advance to this week’s Northern California Regional tournament. Lower seeds, however, often go on the road.
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“They’re all juniors, and we’ll be back,” Swafford said of his team. “We’ll be back next year. Shoot, we’ll be back next week. We’ve done this before. We’ve lost here and made a run in NorCals.”
The biggest lesson, the stern yet fatherly Swafford stressed, also can define character.
“We win with humility, and we lose with humility,” said Swafford, whose program was in a title game for the sixth time since 2005. “If we can’t do that, then we don’t belong here. We’re fine. This was a great game, a war. Could’ve gone either way.”
Sacramento (26-5) was terrific early, storming to a 13-0 lead and not allowing a field goal until 57 seconds remained in the first quarter. Crisp ball movement and tough defense allowed the Dragons to lead 18-4 after the first quarter, but the Crusaders (28-3) never buckled.
Under coach Richard Midgley, a point guard great for the program in the early 2000s, Modesto Christian charged back and held on late as two final Dragons three-point attempts missed. In winning their 18th consecutive game, the Crusaders celebrated the program’s ongoing-record 17th title since 1997 in various divisions and first in D-II.
Pacific-bound forward Anthony Townes led Modesto Christian with 13 points. Jordan Hollins-Buckner and Sacramento State-bound Jeff Wu added 10 each for the Crusaders, who expect to return to the NorCal Open Division field when the bracket is announced Sunday.
Sayvon Hines scored 12 for Sacramento, and fellow guards Stephen Matthews and Christian Terrell contributed 10 each. Junior center Solomon Young had nine points for the Dragons.
“We started slow, and it took us a while to score a point,” Midgley said. “Credit the team and our leadership for sticking through it. We stuck to our game plan of getting our touches inside, and we attacked their pressure a little better. We got rolling. I was really proud of the way we rebounded, we defended.”
Pride was the common theme for Swafford, too. The Dragons are built to win next season with Matthews the only senior on the roster, but they fully expect to make a NorCal run now.
“This is great, to be in a championship game like this, and it’s about learning in life, too,” Swafford said. “I’m very proud of these kids.”