A throwback vibe energized IC Catholic Prep's gym on Friday, back to the era when the Knights and Montini duked it out in the Suburban Catholic and Suburban Christian conferences.
"This used to be a rivalry game, Montini-IC," said sixth-year ICCP boys basketball coach T.J. Tyrrell. "When they left the conference that changed a little bit. My first two years as head coach we were playing them for the conference championship. It's nice to be able to have another good game again."
ICCP outlasted the Broncos 56-52 to win the ICCP/Westmont Christmas Classic championship, a contentious, physical struggle that always felt on the verge of whirling out of control. ICCP (11-4) won the tournament for the fourth time in its seven years and erased last season's bad memory in the process.
"We had a chip on our shoulder," said Knights guard Kevin Cheng, whose 17 points tied Montini guard Anthony Thompson for game honors. "We lost the third-place game, so we got fourth place last year. That's been a game in my mind since last year. I think we dialed in, we were ready for this tournament right when it started."
At times, like when Montini's Jeremiah Banks-Wall crashed to the court taking a charge from ICCP's Khali Saunders -- an offensive tackle absorbing a linebacker in a different season -- it seemed a football game threatened to erupt. Free throws were key, as ICCP made 8 of 13 in the fourth quarter. Montini (10-4) made 5 of 10 on the night.
Montini coach Daryl Thomas focused elsewhere.
"We missed a lot of layups, missed a lot of free throws and we kind of shot ourselves in the foot," he said.
"IC did everything they needed to do to win it. That's why they were the champs."
Montini led 15-14 after one quarter then went 3 of 10 from the floor in the second quarter as ICCP led 27-23 at halftime.
The Knights opened a 38-26 lead with 2:25 left in the third on Niko Gaudio's three-point play and Cheng's two free throws and 3-pointer, his third of the game.
Montini hustled nearly all the way back. Thompson, Luke Morrill and Fred Stokes -- the latter two with 10 points apiece -- brought the Broncos within 51-49 on Morrill's 3 from the left arc with 1:55 to play.
ICCP's Alex Meurer drove for his 12th point for a 4-point lead then took his third offensive charge of the game. Montini forced two straight turnovers but couldn't score until Thompson's three-point play with 23.6 seconds left cut the deficit to 54-52. Cheng's single free throws over the last 22 seconds provided the final score.
Saunders scored 15 points with 11 rebounds, his third straight double-double, and Gaudio had 5 assists.
"I think it was just a nailbiter the whole way," said Stokes, who added 2 fourth-quarter steals. "It was just a tight game the whole time and we just couldn't pull through."
"That was a very intense game," Tyrrell said, "and I thought we weren't composed at times but overall we settled in and we did what we had to do. Guys knocked down their free throws and made the extra pass and it turned out in our favor."