The Coast News Group
Santa Fe Christian’s Alex Yphantides goes over Carlsbad’s Josh Davis for a layup during the Eagles’ 71-58 win against the Lancers on Feb. 29 at the University of California San Diego for the CIF Division I San Diego Section championship. Photo by Steve Puterski

Eagles soar past Carlsbad for D1 CIF hoops title

SAN DIEGO — In a battle between two of North County’s premier programs, it was Santa Fe Christian shooting its way past Carlsbad to secure the Division I CIF San Diego Section title on Feb. 29 at the University of California San Diego.

After a back and forth first half, the Eagles pulled away in the third quarter thanks to its outside shooting and locking up the Lancers’ offense to secure a 71-58 win. Both teams qualified for the state tournament, which began March 3.

Santa Fe Christian leveraged a balanced scoring attack and a pesky defense to secure its third CIF championship in the past four seasons. Saagar Dhanjani led the Eagles with 15 points, while Sam Dudley and Keatten Smith had 14 and Alex Yphantides and Hayden Gray chipped in with 12 and 11, respectively.

“The big thing is our culture, that’s the big thing for me,” Eagles head coach Chad Bickley said. “That’s what this program is built on.”

Carlsbad, meanwhile, was led by a game-high 26 points from Jailen Nelson with Toby Harris and Mason Bowers adding 12 and 11, respectively. The Lancers, though, were hobbled by a rash of injuries notably juniors Caleb Nelson, the team’s second leading scorer, and 6-foot-10 Kai Burdick, who’ve missed the last several games.

Knowing Jailen Nelson is the engine driving the Carlsbad attack, Bickley said stopping the dynamic senior was a priority. While Nelson scored 26, he just went 9-for-24 from the field.

CIF Division 1
Carlsbad’s Jailen Nelson drives past a Santa Fe Christian’s Saagar Dhanjani during the third quarter of their CIF Division San Diego Section title game on Feb. 29 at the University of California San Diego. Santa Fe Christian won, 71-58. Photo by Steve Puterski

“It’s shutting Jailen down. You say that and it’s impossible,” Bickley said. “We just wanted to make it hard on him and towards the end he started hitting some crazy shots, but that’s the type of player he is. If he’s going to score, we wanted him to earn it.”

While the Eagles made life hard for Nelson, Santa Fe Christian was also able to use its depth and height advantage to outrebound the Lancers and get easy second-chance points, Bickers added. Santa Fe Christian grabbed 38 board compared to 25 for Carlsbad.

In the first half, though, the two schools battled shot for shot, although the Lancers defense was able to force 12 turnovers to stay within four, 31-28, at halftime.

The Eagles threatened several times to blow it open in the first half, first leading 18-12, but buckets by Nelson and Sam Hasegawa sliced the lead to 18-16. In the second quarter, Santa Fe Christian went on a 9-2 run to go up 30-21 thanks to a 3-pointer by Gray, and a steal by Gray who fed Dhanjani for a breakaway layup.

Still, the Lancers hung tough and clawed their way back thanks to buckets from Harris, Josh Davis and a 3-pointer by Bowers to put Carlsbad within four at the break.

“Coming into it we knew it was going to be a challenge,” CHS head coach Sam Eshelman said. “Those guys are extremely skilled, they’re tough and good with the basketball. We got some guys forced into action because of injury … and I think we ran out of gas.”

Although both schools competed in Division I, CIF reseeds teams and placed both in the Division 2 state tournament due to strength of schedule and other factors.

The Eagles earned a 13 seed and played at No. 4 Hesperia on Tuesday, while Carlsbad was a 16 seed and played No. 1 St. Francis of La Canada. The results were not available at press time.