By RYAN ARENA
RIVER RIDGE — Over the past two seasons, Riverside and John Curtis have established one of the most fierce rivalries in the state. Friday night bore its latest chapter — and one of its most exciting.
Von Julien’s potential game-tying 3-pointer bounced off the rim as time expired at Curtis and the Patriots emerged with a 65-62 victory in front of a jam-packed gymnasium, earning a share of the District 10-2A championship.
Kai Morgan scored a game-high 19 points, including five 3-pointers, to lead Curtis. The Patriots were coming off of losses to Riverside and Newman, the second and first ranked teams in 2A respectively.
“We were heartbroken after the last one,” said Morgan, referring to Curtis’ 44-41 loss at Riverside in the first district meeting between the teams. “We can’t lose three like that in a row. We had to come back and get it done tonight.”
Morgan, an 8th grader, scored just two points in the previous meeting.
“We let him get going,” said Riverside coach Timmy Byrd. “His shooting was the difference in the game.”
The Patriots’ win ensured that for the second straight season, Riverside (20-5, 7-1) and Curtis (17-6, 7-1) split district championship honors. The two teams have combined to win the last three Class 2A state championships and the teams have alternated victories over their past six games, each team winning three.
“We made our free throws down the stretch tonight,” said Curtis coach Michael Kracjier. “That was a big contrast from the last game. Our guys stepped up to the line and knocked down some huge shots to close this out.”
While the two teams will officially share district championship honors, the Curtis win sets up a district playoff game between the teams, with the winner getting the extra half-point in the state power rankings that comes with a district championship. That game was scheduled for Monday at Country Day, but was contested after publication press time. Results will be in Saturday’s edition.
Richard Durant scored 14, Raekwon James scored 13 and Malichi Dupre scored 10.
Malik Crowfield led Riverside with 18 points. Von Julien scored 15, Herb McGee 14 and Cory Costanza five for Riverside.
The Rebels began to control the game in the second quarter after a Herb McGee 3-pointer made it 18-13. Curtis scored four straight, but the Rebels got two big momentum plays off a steal and layup by Jordan Andrews and then a big one-handed slam in transition by McGee that brought the crowd to its feet. A Costanza putback made it 24-17. RA led 26-19 at halftime.
But Curtis hung close and kept Riverside from truly running away with a lead.
“We had chances to put them away early,” said Byrd. “But we had a couple of lapses at the defensive end and they hung close.”
“I thought P.J. Lewis was a huge key,” said Kracjier. “His defense, his hustle in the second quarter kept us alive when Riverside was making a push.”
Curtis pushed back in the third quarter. A strong move in the lane by JCC’s Issac Banks led to a basket that made it 28-25, then he made two free throws to make it a one-point game. Julien slashed through the lane for a bucket, but Dupre scored inside, then Durant dribbled around a screen and pulled up for a 3 that gave Curtis its first lead since 8-7. Durant found James for a 3 with 1:30 left in the quarter that gave Curtis a 39-36 lead headed into the fourth.
Curtis took a 47-41 lead on a Morgan 3 — set up by an impressive crossover dribble and assist by James — and then a 49-41 lead on a pull-up jumper by Durant.
The Rebels marched back, setting up a thrilling finish. Crowfield sank a deep 3-pointer from the top of the circle to make it 54-51 with 1:55 left. But 10 seconds later, Morgan launched a 3 of his own that found net to make it 57-51.
“I saw him do that and I felt like I had to do something to quiet their crowd,” said Morgan.
The Rebels again cut their deficit to two after a behind the back pass by McGee found Julien for an open 3, making it 58-56. James made two shots at the foul line before the Rebels cut it to one on a McGee 3-pointer, assisted by Deuce Wallace, with 37.7 seconds left.
Durant was fouled and sank two free throws. Riverside came up empty on its next drive when Andrews missed on a drive into the lane, and Durant made two more free throws with 16 seconds left.
A tough, leaning 3 by Julien with 6.4 seconds left made it 64-62, and James made just one of two free throws, giving Riverside life.
But the Rebels couldn’t muster another clutch shot to force overtime, and the see-saw trend between the two rivals continued with a Curtis victory.
“We feel like we let one get away tonight,” said Byrd. “But we knew Curtis wouldn’t go away. They’ve got great talent. This, no doubt, has become a big rivalry.”
Added Kracjier, “High school basketball needs more rivalries like this. It’s a good thing.”
It was a big night for the Morgan family, as Kai Morgan’s sister Kolby scored 32 in the Lady Patriots win over Riverside earlier Friday night.
Both are the younger siblings of current LSU freshman Malik Morgan, who scored 50 points in a game against Riverside two years ago.
“I’ve got big shoes to fill,” said Morgan. “My sister scored over 30, my brother scored 50. I had 19 tonight, but I’ll take it.”