SANTA CRUZ – Archbishop Riordan joined an elite club Friday night.
Since the Central Coast Section Open Division came into existence in 2013 for boys basketball, five schools from the West Catholic Athletic League had claimed at least one title.
Top-seeded Archbishop Mitty is a five-time winner and sought a three-peat in the championship game at Kaiser Permanente Arena, home to the Santa Cruz Warriors.
No. 3 Riordan had other plans.
In a rematch of last year’s final, the Crusaders avenged an overtime loss to Mitty with a 68-51 victory to secure the 16th CCS trophy in school history.
“We were just talking about, ‘Man, we’re going to come back in five years and say we were the first ones to bring history with an Open Division championship,’” said Riordan junior King-Njhsanni Wilhite, who delivered an MVP performance with a game-high 29 points. “That’s big. It hasn’t even hit me yet, but I’m just super happy with this group and everybody on the team.”
Riordan coach Joe Curtin, who won a CCS Division III title at his alma mater in 2001 as a player and again in 2018 during his inaugural season at the helm, took over a program that was coming off a 1-13 campaign in the WCAL.
“To win a CCS championship as a player and to get us to the mountain top here this year it’s hard to describe,” Curtin said. “When you have so much pride, it makes it that much more special.”
Riordan (20-8) lost its five previous meetings against Mitty (23-5), including a 69-63 contest in OT for last year’s trophy.
Wilhite erupted for 35 points in that championship game and seemed poised to eclipse that total after going off for 18 points while sinking four 3-pointers in the first half.
But the rest of his scoring came from the charity stripe as Riordan relied on players such as junior Marcellus Edwards and freshman Quinton Bundage, who contributed 10 and nine points, respectively.
Jasier Rencher, another freshman, added seven points, seven rebounds and three blocks, while junior Achilles Woodson beat the buzzer at the end of the third quarter to give Riordan a 50-38 cushion.
Wilhite once again shined on the biggest stage, but the 6-foot-1 guard wasn’t alone.
“He just wants to win so bad,” Curtin said. “It’s his biggest gift and it can be his greatest curse, where you try to do too much to win on your own. But if you’ve seen him this year, you’ve seen how much he’s grown and how much he trusts his teammates and just plays within himself. That’s why we’re champs, it’s his growth and everyone else stepping up around that and believing in themselves.
“It’s been tremendous to watch. You look at us from November to now, you wouldn’t believe it.”
Riordan took its first lead with 1:55 lead in the first quarter, part of a 10-0 run.
From that point on the Crusaders never trailed.
“That was big because they already believed going into the game we could win,” Curtin said, “but kind of controlling the first quarter just opened the floodgates and just said, ‘This is our game. Let’s go out and win it and take it.’”
Mitty coach Tim Kennedy credited Riordan.
“They came out with a lot of fire and a lot more force than we did,” Kennedy said. “That’s basketball right there. If you’re the energy and the force, who wins that battle usually comes out on top. And they definitely had that tonight.”
The Monarchs suffered a tough blow with 6:53 left in the second quarter after Isaiah Cabebe, who hit the game-winning 3-pointer in a 50-47 victory over Riordan barely three weeks ago, hit his head on the hardwood after a collision in mid-air.
He had to be helped off the court and never returned to action.
“He’s the head of our offense, so we had to figure out some things, how to maneuver some guys in different positions,” Kennedy said. “So that hurt us, but all the credit goes to Riordan with the force that they play with and the way they hit big shots.”
Mitty got 15 points apiece from Aidan Burke and Tyler Jones, but could never close the gap beyond seven points in the second half.
For the first time, the boys Open Division title game ended in a double-digit disparity.
“Going into halftime we said that they’re a second-half team and are going to come out and push us,” Wilhite said. “We just had to stay level-headed and just keep playing. Possession and possession, just keep going hard every second.”
While Riordan celebrates over the weekend and awaits to find out its opponent at home when the CIF NorCal brackets are announced Sunday, Mitty must regroup in advance of a likely tough road test in the state playoffs.
“Having a bad game on a big night is always tough to swallow,” Kennedy said. “But the one good thing, the bright spot here, is that the season is not over. So you’re not going out on this note and you have a chance to put together a little string of games that we can go out feeling good about ourselves.”