Montgomery Tip-Off Opener: (21) Sweetwater 63, (14) Christian 61
The battle of top-25 teams lived up to the billing, as the Red Devils and Patriots exchanged leads three times in the game's final seconds before 2021 F CJ McMillan's runner from the free-throw line with six seconds left gave Sweetwater the game's final margin.
After the Red Devils raced out to a 19-4 first quarter lead, the matchup appeared to be headed toward a lopsided blowout before Christian answered with a 25-7 second quarter, setting up a thrilling second half.
We learned a lot about both of these teams moving forward, including some very encouraging things if you are a Christian fan. We explore them in our five takeaways.
1. Sweetwater will dominate teams on the boards this year
The Red Devils raced out to a commanding lead by leaning on their bookend bigs, 6-5 CJ McMillan and 6-6 senior CJ Jackson, who pounded Christian on the boards the entire game.
This will be a prevailing theme during the year for the Red Devils, as only a handful of teams - and none really in Division 3 - are equipped to handle their interior prowess.
By game's end the Red Devils amassed an impressive 54-26 advantage on the boards, with Jackson accounting for nearly as many rebounds by himself (25) as the Patriots team.
Jackson might be arguably the best rebounder in the section - and that is saying something, given that Ronnie Latting of Mission Bay is pretty impressive in his own right. The Sweetwater senior pursues boards with a ferocity you rarely see, and uses his length and quick jump to snag boards away from opponents. Plus, his motor never stops.
McMillan, the hero of the day for the Devils, finished with 10 to go along with a team-high 25 points. He's rounding into a very versatile scorer, who is able to score it using both brute force and nimble feet and skill.
Even 5-9 point guard Jimmy Mattox contributed six rebounds of his own to the cause.
For the Red Devils, the offense will be pretty simple this season: miss shots and let the bigs do the rest.
2. But their guard play must improve
Despite the monster effort from the bigs, the game reverted to the mean when the Patriots were able to speed up the tempo by turning over Sweetwater's guards. Outside of Mattox, the team does not have a reliable secondary ball handler. Junior Chris Aguilo shows flashes of highlight-reel handles, but is turnover prone. 6-5 junior wing Jeilen Jackson (CJ's kid brother), is a solid passer once in the halfcourt, but struggled mightily advancing the ball against the Patriots guards. And this was a Pats back court that was shorthanded due to injury (Isaiah Robinson out for the season with a broken leg) and transfer (Kobe Sanders and Michael Perez both are 30-day sit-out players.
If the Red Devils are to make a deep run in Division 3 - where several of the primary contenders have very polished back courts - the guard play must improve in a hurry.
3. Christian has a chance to contend for an Open Division spot - if not a D1 title
Leaving this game, I thought the outcome spoke more about Christian than it did about Sweetwater, which was at full strength. The Patriots were without starting 6-8 center Patrick Roberts (foot), 5-10 bulldog Javy Jimenez (football) and the aforementioned transfers. Role players such as Cameron De Jesus and Deshawn Lynch were thrust into star turns on opening night, and both struggled at times. Still, with the absolutely brilliant performance by 6-7 Jackson Larsen - who earlier in the day signed his letter of intent to Northern Arizona - the playmaking ability of junior guard Miles Williams (14 points and 3 steals) and the timely three-point shooting of freshman Vinny Signorelli (4-9 from deep in his debut), Davion Famber's squad nearly pulled off a signature early-season victory.
With the influx of talent set to return to the Patriots, it wouldn't surprise me if this team is closer to the Top 10 than the preseason No. 14 ranking.
4. But role players must improve
With that said, for long stretches last night, Christian was playing 4 on 5 - and sometimes 3 on 5 - due to the inability of its role players to produce.
Outside of Signorelli's 12 points, the Patriots got a combined 16 points from Lynch, DeJesus, Jonny Williams (Williams did contribute 8 rebounds) and Justin Razooky.
While the calvary is on the way for the Patriots, it won't be there for at least another two weeks with the return of Roberts and Jimenez and another month until Perez and Sanders are eligible. If the team's role players don't find their stride, Christian could dig too deep of a hole to advance to the Open Division.
5. Jackson Larsen is a Division 1 player
Of the five players to sign Division 1 letters of intent in San Diego yesterday - Boogie Ellis to Duke, Ryan Langborg to Princeton, Mojus Mojus to Cal State Fullerton, Bryce Pope to UCSD (which makes its D1 debut in 2020) and Larsen - it's Larsen that has been the most polarizing.
But yesterday, he looked every bit of a Division 1 caliber swingman, against some serious front court talent. His line says it all: 31 points, 10 rebounds, 5 steals, 3 assists and a game-tying three with 13 seconds left in the game.
Larsen scored comfortably from all three levels and looked much improved shooting it from the perimeter, where he was streaky at best last season. Always known as one of the region's top athletes, his skill level has gone to the next level.
I think Northern Arizona is getting a player who, with time in a college weightroom, could wind up being one of the biggest steals on the West Coast, as there aren't many 6-7, 6-8 player with his combination of wing skills, bouncy athleticism and upside.
If he can consistently put up similar numbers all season, an All San Diego Section first team berth isn't out of the question.