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Crusaders take the lead into the second half against the nationally ranked Monarchs

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Jesuit junior Liam Ruttledge scored a team-high 18 points against Mater Dei at the Les Schwab Invitational

As Mater Dei swung the basketball from the right side of the court to the left, Jesuit senior guard Matt Levis was keenly aware of what was to come.

In front of him stood Wilhelm Breidenbach, a spindly, yet functionally strong post who at 6-foot-9 was blessed with a nine-inch height difference over the spying Levis. Without much size on the Jesuit boys' basketball roster, this was Levis' assignment for the evening session of the Les Schwab Invitational: essentially alligator wrestle with dudes almost 10 inches taller while giving up 20-30 pounds depending on the Monarch.

But Levis has the heart of a lion. He's a state champion who still hasn't lost that chip on his shoulder that helped Jesuit claim of the more improbable crowns in Class 6A history a year ago. So, as Breidenbach reeled in the post entry pass and tried to wheel inside, Levis took his right knee and dug it into the angular pivot's hamstring, rendering him helpless on the block. Breidenbach tried to spin back left, yet Levis shuffled his feet, cut off the Division One prospect, bumped him with his chest and stopped the junior cold in his tracks. As Breidenbach bent over to protect his dribble, two helping Crusaders swiped at the basketball, ripped it free and ran it back the other way, getting a rare transition bucket en route to a startling 26-25 halftime lead over the twelfth ranked team in the United States according to USA Today.

The large LSI crowd was abuzz as both private schools made their way to the locker rooms. Mater Dei, a team that looks, runs and jumps like the USA mens' beach volleyball squad, was in a dogfight with a Jesuit team many inside the state have once again ignored in the early goings of the season. But anybody who's been around the Gene Potter-led Crusader program long enough knows Jesuit will compete and punch way above its weight class. Levis' grit and stubbornness in the post, standing up Breidenbach, then bucking him off the block, exemplified that principle. The Crusaders carried a one-point lead into the early minutes of the third quarter, leaning on a clean offensive execution, precise outside shooting and timely defense before Mater Dei's talent level ultimately upstaged Jesuit's eyebrow-raising second quarter. The Monarchs ran away with the 77-54 win with thanks to live ball takeaways, run-outs and fast break hoops.

Yet, Levis' efforts, coupled with Jesuit's undaunted attitude despite supposedly being outmanned, was a clear reminder that the Crusaders aren't going anywhere when it comes to the Metro League title hunt or the 6A state championship sprint this season.

"We give great effort when it's time, we don't back down from a challenge," Jesuit junior point guard Roy Bunn said. "We have good momentum going into the rest of the season. Mater Dei is a great, great team. I think we have the right pieces. We lost a lot of guys last year, but I feel like we're picking it up right from when we beat Jefferson in March (for the state title)."

Jesuit will be heard from. Its presence will be felt, both figuratively and physically. The Crusaders beat teams with alleged better talent because they battle every possession, no plays off. They can catch opponents napping with their meek schoolboy appearances and crumble them with striking execution and gung-ho defensive methods. For a half, Jesuit put a Mater Dei on its heels. Moving the ball quicker than the Monarchs could set its defense, the Crusaders made three threes including the go-ahead triple from Liam Ruttledge just before the half that gave Jesuit a 26-25 lead at the break. James Lang made a floater and banked home a lefty layup off a heads-up inbound pass from Bunn. Levis battled tooth and nail in the post. Mike Brittingham came off the bench, beat Mater Dei star Devin Askew off the dribble and got a lefty layup to fall. Shots dropped, momentum swelled, confidence grew and all of a sudden, any tepidness Jesuit felt early dissipated as the Crusaders got lost in the flow of the game and the electricity of the crowd. Levis said it was Jesuit's best quarter of the season, eight minutes that the Crusaders can stash away in the back of their minds and harken to as they try to defend their state title.

"It was the most 'team' basketball I've seen this season," Levis said. "A lot of people are doubting us because we lost a lot of seniors and four starters. But seeing those young guys perform like that gives me hope for the future games down the line. We have to play all four quarters like we did that second quarter…if we want to stand a chance against a team like that. I know we can do it. There is no doubt in my mind. It's just more mental than physical. If we can shift our mental game, then we're going to be scarier come the postseason."

"It was surreal in the locker room," Bunn said with a smile. "We had to keep our composure because we knew in the second half, they'd try to punch us in the mouth."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - The Jesuit boys basketball team took a one point lead into halftime against Mater Dei at the Les Schwab Invitational.

Reggie Walker and the LSI organizers have given Jesuit some of the toughest out-of-state teams the past three years for good reason. Two seasons ago, the Crusaders took on future Arizona Wildcat Brandon Williams and Crespi (CA). Last year it was Sierra Canyon pre-Bronny James but still chock-full of high major D1 commits. The Crusaders will never be outclassed or outcompeted. The LSI can count on Jesuit to show up in full force and fight like hell against teams that are taller, longer, more athletic. They won't get run off the court by anybody.

"A lot of people are like 'Oh, they fell off. They're small. They're tiny. They're just a bunch of white kids who are barely over six feet from Jesuit,'" Levis said. "People thought Mater Dei was going to clap us by 40…and then we go into the half up (by one). It's those moments that you live for, that you feed off. We walked into the locker room and you could hear kids in the stands go 'Yo, what is going on, how are they up?'. It's what drives you and makes you want to go win another state championship and show out and prove everyone wrong. We want to show them that Jesuit is still a state contender."

Going into the game, Jesuit didn't necessarily have any detailed game film of Mater Dei, so naturally, Levis went to YouTube. He pulled up highlights of Breidenbach, Harrison Hornery, Nick Davidson and others, players who will one day be in the Pac-12 Conference. Such a tall task was nothing new to Levis. Last year he and former teammate Will Sheaffer used to wage war in after-practice "no mercy" post sessions, banging bodies, trying to dislodge each other around the rim. Sheaffer showed Levis little tricks, small ways to gain ground and bother bigger opponents without fouling. It a baptism of sorts from the fire and brimstone Sheaffer. But looking back, it toughened Levis and prepped to go toe to toe with one of the biggest high school frontcourts in the country.

"Mentally and physically I was just preparing myself to take a beating this game," Levis said. "It was more of a pride thing. I told guys just because they were 6'9" or whatever, don't let them back you down in the post, hold your ground. A few times I got an elbow or two…but there were times I just hunkered down and started pushing them out of the paint."

Ruttledge, a left-handed sniper with a slippery handle, might have looked the most at home against Mater Dei's encompassing size and length. The Monarchs' dimensions made life difficult, especially inside. When perimeter shots didn't drop, the Monarchs were able to go up and over Jesuit's front line with sheer towering height and control the offensive glass. Mater Dei's smallest starter stood 6-foot-3. Every wingspan on the court was elongated and engaged.

Mater Dei outscored Jesuit by 30 on points in the paint, scored 23 points off the Crusaders' 16 turnovers, 20 more off second-chance points and 16 in transition. The Monarchs are, after all, one of the best high school programs in the nation for a reason. They attract the top players from around Southern California, a breeding ground for college and pro prospects.

But Ruttledge was relatively unfazed by Mater Dei's prestige. His back-to-back deep threes in the second quarter gave Jesuit life and his running floater to begin the third let the Crusaders hold a 28-27 lead for a bit longer. Later in the third, Ruttledge pump faked a Mater Dei defender, used a quick escape dribble to right himself, rose up a buried a three to bring Jesuit within 35-31. Ruttledge also broke a Mater Dei defender's ankles and sent him to the deck with a nasty, violent behind the back dribble just in front of the LSI courtside seats.

Levis and Bunn were instrumental parts of Jesuit's state title run a year ago, bringing energy and defense to the floor. They've taken on much bigger roles as starters with extended minutes and played well as featured players. Ruttledge looks like a star in the making, a mix of Justin Bieker, Matt Lang and Aiden Williams all rolled into one. The junior's 18 points against Mater Dei were a team-high. James Lang is another dead-eye shooter who can't be left alone, but he proved he can put the ball on the deck and dictate offense off the dribble against the Monarchs. Lang was the only other Crusader to notch double figures with 10 points. Levis added 6 points and 4 assists, Bunn finished with four points, two assists and two steals.

"This team feeds off of each other," Levis said. "We know our roles. I like the fact that we don't try to do too much. If we do our stuff, then we have another second quarter like that and play really solid basketball as a team."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Jesuit sophomore Spencer McKelligon grabbed five rebounds against Mater Dei.

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