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By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter
If it seemed like Valley Christian High senior Stedmon Bryant couldn’t miss a shot, it’s because he was nearly perfect against Oaks Christian High in a California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section Division IV-A second round game last Friday night. In front of a vivacious home crowd, Bryant poured in a career-high 24 points and was eight of 10 from the field as the Crusaders rallied in the final five minutes to knock off the Lions 79-74.
Of Bryant’s eight field goals, seven came beyond the perimeter arc. Bryant was true on his final seven shots he took and his shooting performance helped the Crusaders shoot 57 percent from the field. V.C. was also 13 of 20 from three-point land while Oaks Christian was nine of 20 from downtown.
“Wow, that was some of the best high school shooting I’ve ever seen in my life,” said V.C. head coach Bryan Branderhorst. “It was one of the best games I’ve been a part of. It was just blow for blow from downtown.”
“It’s basketball; everybody is trying to win,” Bryant said. “Shots go in and shots miss. Everybody is trying to get the same goal. They just kept encouraging me to shoot it, and I just shot it.”
V.C. got out of the gates fast and owned a 10-3 lead almost five minutes into the contest. It wasn’t until Dom Rector hit his third three-pointer of the stanza with 0.7 seconds left in the quarter when Oaks Christian took its first lead at 17-15. The lead would grow to seven points 75 seconds into the second quarter following a three-point play from Iverson Molinar.
But for every attack the Crusaders had on the Lions in the second quarter, the second place representatives from the Marmonte League would have a counterattack. Max Heidegger hit a pair of downtown shots and was four of four from the charity stripe in the second quarter. But the Crusaders went on an 11-2 run over the final 2:17 of the first half to gain a 42-39 lead at the break.
“We shot the ball incredibly well and at halftime I told the guys we were shooting well because our rhythm was good,” Branderhorst said. “Extra passes, side to side, inside-out, the right shot selection…everything was on point there for us tonight offensively. The guys executed very well.”
Just 16 seconds into the second half, Bryant drained the first of three downtown shots in the quarter. The second of those long shots put V.C. up 51-49 at the midway point of the stanza and 38 seconds later, he increased his team’s lead to 54-49. But once again, the Lions roared back and when Rector hit a three-pointer at the 1:12 mark, Oaks Christian was up by four points. But Rector, who finished with 19 points, and Heidegger, who added 18 points, would combine for five points in the fourth quarter.
“We knew that Rector was an incredible shooter and his range is forever,” Branderhorst said. “He’s shooting from 26 feet and he was super hot tonight. And Heidergger is an incredible penetrator and he’s just a really hard guy to stay in front of. He’s very quick and can shoot the long ball. They’re a very, very good team and we feel blessed to come out with a ‘W’ tonight.”
The Lions were up 65-59 early in the fourth quarter when the Crusaders made one of their biggest rallies of the season, which started with a Bryant three-pointer. After a Rector bucket, Bryant had a rebound and passed the ball off to junior Aaron Purnell whose basket cut the deficit to three points with 3:50 left in the game. Almost a minute later, it was Purnell who assisted on another Bryant three-pointer to give the Crusaders the lead for good.
But the turning point in the game came when Bryant nearly turned the ball over after a V.C. timeout, but recovered nicely to feed a pass to Purnell who drained a three-pointer with 40.2 seconds left to play and give the hosts a 74-70 lead. Purnell then was true on five straight free throws to close out the game.
“It’s a lot about belief and believing in yourself and believing in each other,” Branderhorst said. “And we certainly had a lot tonight. So many guys stepped up in such huge ways. Stedman Bryant was unbelievable; they had nothing for him. Any time he had a look, he was knocking them down. He was just money. [Senior] Vaj [Rice] was tough to guard. Aaron Purnell with a huge three-point shot to put us up four, and then the clutch free throws that basically wins the game for us.”
In addition to his hot shooting throughout the game, Bryant led the team with six assists while Purnell added 19 points and four assists off the bench. Rice pitched in with 14 points and six rebounds while senior Jordan Mitchell had a dozen points, three rebounds and three assists.
“I’ve coached Stedmon for a long time and that was definitely a highlight performance for him,” Branderhorst said. “But it’s something we’re not incredibly shocked about. Part of the thing about Stedmon is that he’s a cool character, and so the lights get bright and the fans get loud and he doesn’t ever raise his heartbeat.
“The one thing that probably doesn’t show up in the box score was that at the end of the third quarter, Stedmon says, ‘I want [number] 21 coach’,” Branderhorst added. “And it was Stedmon’s defense on Max Heidegger down the stretch that really was the difference.”
“Actually I was surprised because Aaron is one of the best shooters we have,” Bryant said of his performance. “He trusted me today. He’s a great player and he’s one of our best shooters.”
The Crusaders would then be bounced out of the playoffs this past Tuesday night in a 61-59 overtime loss to Viewpoint High. Rice had 15 points while junior Johnny Johnson and Bryant added 12 and 11 points respectively. V.C. concludes the season at 15-15 and graduates six players, including all five starters.
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