Confidence—all good teams have it and it was the key ingredient in the fourth-ranked (MaxPreps) Santa Fe Christian boys’ basketball team’s biggest win of the season Friday night, Jan. 4. After surrendering the lead with 1:40 remaining, in a game they had led virtually the entire way, the host Eagles displayed an assurance that has become second nature in bouncing back to defeat No. 2 Foothills Christian, 57-53, in the Coastal League opener for both clubs. Santa Fe Christian improved its season ledger to 13-4.
Senior transfer (from Virginia) Chase Pagon, new to the San Diego basketball scene this year, said the winning blueprint was laid out moments after Foothills Christian pushed ahead, 53-52. “Our mindset was that we’ve just got to slow it down, get a stop and then we’ll get a bucket,” said Pagon. “Our point guard Hayden Gray had us all come together and said ‘I know one of us is going to hit a shot.’ So, we all had that mentality that any one of us could make a shot and win this game.”
Little did Gray know it would be him doing the honors, getting a steal and putting the Eagles back on top with the last two of his team high 15 points (Trevan Martin banked in a late lob from Sam Dudley for the final two). “They were ahead by one and had possession so we had to get a steal and a bucket,” said Gray, almost clinically afterward. “They got the ball to the little guard I was guarding, he got a screen, I made a play, picked him and went to go get a layup.” Just like it was drawn up—and in a way, that’s sort of how the game played out in aggregate. The winners didn’t see the outcome as an upset.
“Our expectation is more focusing on what we need to do to win than to win,” said Head Coach Chad Bickley. “Do that and at the end of the day you hope to end up where we were today.
“That was a very good team on the other side of the court tonight. They have players who are so good at creating individually and we had to just make it tough on them—to hold them in the 50’s was a true, true win for us and a testament to our guys.” In doing so, the Eagles may have formally announced themselves as CIF Open Division candidates and a threat to any opponent.
At first sight, SFC is the kind of team one might dismiss as lucky or a one-time phenomenon. The Eagles’ lack of size and sheer athleticism, coupled with their high-octane style, absolute lack of fear or hesitation in attacking the basket, incredible number of tips and deflections and the 50-50 balls they claim without fouling seems too good to be sustainable. But multiple viewings convince observers that this is simply a very good basketball squad that goes about eight deep without a drop off.
“We’re confident because at practice, we go hard at each other all the time and Coach Bickley has us in a great structure,” said Pagon, who racked up 10 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and did a stellar job defensively on the Knights’ 6-5 Derrick Carter-Hollinger. “Our offense is really grounded in that structure, which is all about being a teammate. We trust that our teammates are making the best decisions on the court so when somebody goes to the basket, they know they have the whole team behind them.”
Santa Fe Christian took control midway through the first quarter but Foothills was always a looming presence. The Eagles led, 23-16, two minutes and 30 seconds into the second quarter and were up by three at halftime. They got their biggest lead with 2:28 to go in the third on a play that demonstrated both their depth and conviction. Junior guard Saagar Dhanjani, who had barely five minutes of playing time, gathered in a clutch offensive rebound right under the basket. Instead of looking to pass the ball and with it the responsibility, he pump-faked a defender and banked in his only two points of the night to make it 44-36. Confidence.
“Without a doubt, one of the biggest baskets of the game,” said Bickley. “But our guys are always ready. Some nights he’s been our best player. They’re all about each other, not about themselves, and that’s what so great about coaching them.”
There was more where that came from. When Foothills Christian narrowed the lead to three in the first minute of the final quarter, 6-foot sophomore Keatten Smith drained a trey. It was his only make in eight tries from beyond the arc and came at a point where SFC had made just 2-of-17. Confidence.
Sophomore Martin accounted for 11 points, giving the Eagles three players in double figures. The Knights, who dropped to 10-4 on the season, also had a trio with double digits—Junior Yassine Gharram (17), senior Jaren Nafarrete (11) and Carter-Hollinger (12). That’s the same threesome that poured in 64 points in a double overtime victory over Torrey Pines two weeks ago.
While the statistics were nice, it was the “W” that resonated most with Santa Fe Christian. “This is a huge win,” said Gray. We’ve never beaten Foothills Christian and they’ve been a powerhouse team in our league forever.
“Coach Bickley prepared us for this game very well and it feels awesome.” The Eagles are back in action at home next Tuesday against No. 8 Francis Parker.