DETROIT — It had been 20 years since Riverview Gabriel Richard had been able to take home the big trophy from the Catholic League tournament, but trying to speed up the clock in the fourth quarter Saturday probably felt almost as long.
The Pioneers watched as Marine City Cardinal Mooney — playing in the title game for the first time since 2005 — chipped away at a 16-point lead, cutting it all the way down to a two-possession margin before Gabriel Richard finally iced it at the line.
The 63-56 win in the Cardinal Division title game at the University of Detroit Mercy’s Calihan Hall gave the Pioneers their first CHSL title since 1998-99.
“Winning the league was a goal, winning this title was a goal, and winning the districts. But this was up there,” Gabriel Richard coach Kris Daiek said. “Anytime you can win a Catholic League title, this is pretty special.”
Junior Mike Holdsclaw led the Pioneers (18-1, 10-0 CHSL Intersectional 1) with 26 points, while sophomore Michael Calhoun had 13 and senior Robbie Henderson had 11. Gabriel Richard’s other sophomore starter, Nick Szczechowski, had eight.
“They’re young, but very talented, hard-nosed kids,” Daiek said of his two youngsters. “They knew they were going to have a chance to start over the summer, busted their butts, got ready. Playing pretty well.”
It almost wasn’t enough, though, as Cardinal Mooney (12-7, 7-3 CHSL Intersectional 1) — led by 23 points from Nolan Julio and another 11 from Jacob Marshell, 10 of that in the fourth quarter — was bombing away from the outside.
Gabriel Richard entered the fourth with a 45-29 lead, but Cardinal Mooney got it down to four points, 60-56, in the final 45 seconds.
“Did they miss a shot?” Daiek asked with a laugh. “We switch everything defensively, and I thought we did a good job of that. He (Julio) just knocked down some 24-footers. Our defense is kind of designed to do that, make teams beat us from the perimeter. And they almost did it.”
It didn’t help that Gabriel Richard was struggling to close the game out with free throws.
The Pioneers went to the line 27 times in the fourth quarter, but made just 14 of them, as the Cardinals gleefully traded two-for-one swaps, or fouls for stopping the clock. At one point, Gabriel Richard had three straight cracks at the basket, grabbing offensive rebounds on missed free throws — but missed five straight as a team.
“It’s something that we talk about all the time. Actually, about a week ago, we took a lot of time on the free throws, talked about how important it is,” Daiek said. “Mike Holdsclaw, I don’t know what he made, but I don’t think he missed a free throw. Nick missed one there, which is a little uncharacteristic — he usually wants the ball in his hands at that point, and Robbie Henderson, same thing. Senior, usually wants the ball in his hand. The free throws, it almost got us, but we made just enough.”
Holdsclaw was 8-for-10 from the line in the fourth, hitting his last seven.
None of the three games between the two squads were blowouts, but all three were won by the Pioneers: 49-41 on the road on Jan. 17, 51-45 at home on Feb. 7.
But it’s hard to beat a good team three times.
“No question. It’s what do you do to adjust? They have to adjust two times against us. We just try to stick with our system, try to stick with what we do defensively, and our kids buy into that pretty well, and they believe in that — but we can’t adjust anything; we won two games, so it’s tough,” Daiek said. “We thought he was going to come out in something new, but he kind of came out the way we thought he would.”
Despite the gaudy record, the Pioneers aren’t ranked — which is fine with Daiek.
“I don’t know where we are in the rankings. I don’t pay attention to that. I’d rather not be ranked, to be honest with you. … Our kids don’t look at that. Our team doesn’t look at that,” Coach Daiek said. “If they want to rate us, great, but it doesn’t bother us either way.”