Crusaders cruise past IV, clinch state berth

St. Mary’s struggled handling the ball the last two times it played Illinois Valley, turning it over 20 times or more in each of those matchups.

The Crusaders troubleshooted the problem heading into the do-or-die Southern Cascade League tournament semifinals Wednesday night, and that renewed focus, along with some hot shooting, helped them beat Illinois Valley 61-42 at St. Mary’s High School.

“Their press really rattled us, so we spent some time working on that in practice,” St. Mary’s head coach Kevin Dixon said. “I was pretty happy with that tonight.”

The Crusaders (13-11) advanced to play Cascade Christian in the SCL championship game Saturday, a contest which is essentially a seeding game for the 16-team Class 3A state tournament. The winner will earn the league’s top seed to state, the loser the second seed. Still, the Crusaders aren’t taking it lightly.

“We really do need to win that game,” Dixon said.

After stumbling through some turnover woes in its previous two games against IV — both wins — the Crusaders cleaned up their act considerably Wednesday, turning the ball over 13 times, including only four in the first half.

That helped St. Mary’s jump out to a 36-28 lead at the half, and Gavin Rajagopal scored nine of his 16 points in the third quarter to power the Crusaders’ subsequent 18-6 surge which put the game on ice. Rajagopal hit three of the Crusaders’ five 3-pointers, including two in the third, as he continued his steady recovery from a wrist injury that sidelined him for two weeks earlier in the season.

“(Rajagopal’s) back in the mix now,” said Dixon, whose team has won four straight and eight of its last nine. “He’s rounding back into shape and is also a presence defensively. He’s a very athletic kid.”

Also for St. Mary’s, Justin Silsbee had 16 points, Trevahn Foster nine points and seven rebounds and Jakab Bowling five points, five assists and four rebounds.

St. Mary’s also found the hoop with relative ease, shooting 50 percent from the floor (22-for-44) and hitting 12 of 14 from the free throw line.

Illinois Valley (13-11), which was eliminated from postseason contention, was led by Caleb Hess’ 15 points, while Cody Box added 13.

Gabe Mayer, who Dixon describes as the Crusaders’ best defender, held Hess to four points in the second half.

“(Mayer) did a good job on Hess tonight,” Dixon said.

ILLINOIS VALLEY (42): McLanahan 4, Hess 15, Southard 3, Box 13, Sinnwell 0, Alvarez 2, Jolley 0, Bell 5, Shirley 0, Herrera 0. Totals: 16 7-11 42.

ST. MARY’S (61): Keaeo-Wailehua 0, Covington 0, Zhen 0, Miles 2, Sacks 0, Mayer 3, Sternenberg 6, Grant 2, Rajagopal 16, Silsbee 16, Hadley 0, Bowling 5, Reynolds 2, Foster 9. Totals: 22 12-14 61.

Illinois Valley;8;20;6;8;—;42

St. Mary’s;13;23;18;7;—;61

3-point goals — Illinois Valley 3 (Hess 3), St. Mary’s 5 (Mayer 1, Rajagopal 3, Silsbee 1). Technical fouls — Foster.

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