St. Mary’s shines at Cal team camp
Jose Caraballo said in March that his St. Mary’s basketball team would be ready to play with any team in the state next season. The Panthers took their first step toward proving that on Friday, beating reigning Northern California champion Modesto Christian, 42-35, at the Cal Basketball Team Camp in the RSF Fieldhouse.
“We just want to make sure we can compete at this level, and the only way to figure that out is to play teams of this caliber,” Caraballo said.
The game wasn’t the most formal, with a running clock and uneven officiating, but the Panthers’ diversified offense and suffocating pressure defense left no doubt that it meant a lot to the home team. Despite a distinct height disadvantage (6-foot-10 center Simon Knight had knee surgery last week and is lost for the summer), St. Mary’s used their superior quickness and shooting to put Modesto Christian away.
“We’ve got the best guards in the state, on the West Coast, and we’re proving that we’re a force to be reckoned with,” said St. Mary’s point guard DeShawn Freeman.
The most spectacular matchup was at the point, where Modesto Christian’s Richard Midgely faced off against Freeman. Midgely, who has verbally committed to Cal, is considered by many to be the top point guard in California, but he looked a step slow at times against the quicksilver Freeman, who penetrated seemingly at will.
“We both know each other’s games. I’m good, and that’s all that matters to me,” Freeman said. “We’re both big-time players, so it’s all good.”
Freeman converted several spectacular layups over the Modesto Christian big men, but also dished out assists to John Sharper and DeMarcus Nelson on the wings. Sharper was hot early, hitting two three-pointers in the first five minutes.
“We’re improved with DeMarcus, no doubt. Now when I drive, I can go either way, because I’ve got John on one side and DeMarcus on the other to kick the ball out to,” Freeman said.
Friday was Nelson’s first game with the Panthers. The sophomore transfer from Vallejo High inserted himself nicely into the offense, penetrating and shooting pull-up jumpers with ease, but looked a little confused at times in Caraballo’s full-court press defense. But given a full season of work with his new coaches and teammates, last year’s Cal-Hi Sports Freshman of the Year should add another dimension to an already fearsome defense.
“The fast-breaking and up-tempo stuff is part of the reason I wanted to play here. It’s good for me, makes me a better player,” Nelson said.
The newest Panther said he isn’t worried about moving from the point to a wing position.
“I can do other things. I can pass, I can rebound, I can defend. So it’s not a real big adjustment for me.”
Without Knight, the inside work fell to forward Chase Moore. Moore is just 6-foot-4 and was overmatched by the oversized Modesto Christian front line, which included a seven-footer. The Crusaders dominated the boards but failed to capitalize on several putbacks, and Moore showed a nice touch by pulling up over the seven-footer for three straight scores in the second half.
Meanwhile, the Crusaders were simply outmatched in the open court. Freeman, Sharper, Nelson and fellow guards Matt Straus and Tim Fanning were never all on the court together, but at times it seemed like the Panthers had seven men on the floor, scrambling to get their hands on the ball. With Moore cleaning up any sloppy Crusader outlet passes, when the ball left Midgely’s hands it was in serious jeopardy.
“As long as I have this type of player, I’m going to play this type of ball,” Caraballo said. “I’ve got John and DeShawn back, and they’re great players. Now with DeMarcus? Look out.”
The Panthers played it cool after the game, probably because they have more challenges ahead this weekend. They were set to play De La Salle on Friday night, and will face perennial SoCal power Mater Dei at 9 a.m. today. After the morning round of games, the 16 teams in at the camp will be placed in a tournament which will culminate with a final four on Sunday.
“It’s good to get out here against these teams. It lets us know that we can play at the D-1 level,” Freeman said.