AJ Bianco has one question.
“When is football going to start?”
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound quarterback has been raring to go since the sport was postponed last fall by the Interscholastic League of Honolulu. In the meantime, as Saint Louis’ powerful post on the hardwood, Bianco came up big on Wednesday night with 23 points, 10 rebounds and four assists as the Crusaders withstood a gritty effort by Tar Heels Basketball Club for a 63-52 win.
Saint Louis improved to 11-0 in exhibition play.
“I just play basketball for fun,” said Bianco, who has football scholarship offers from Hawaii, Nebraska and Washington State. “I work on it a little bit.”
Fellow junior Aiva Arquette scored all 14 of his points in the first half and finished with 12 rebounds to give Saint Louis two double-double performers. Senior guard Jydon Hall added nine points, including two free throws down the stretch to fend off the persistent Tar Heels.
Micah Sakamoto and Trey Micah Lieb each scored 18 points for the Tar Heels, who suited up just seven players. Six of them are juniors, a mix of players from Maryknoll, Mililani, HBA and Kalani. They cut a 23-point deficit to eight in the final minute of play.
“We hung in there when we were down and made a comeback,” Tar Heels co-coach Steven Lee said.
As a team, they shot 9-for-26 from the arc, but Sakamoto was 4-for-8 and Lieb was 3-for-7 from deep.
By game’s end, Bianco shot 9-for-15 from the field and 3-for-4 at the free-throw line.
“He does it every day at practice. For some guys, it’s very natural. He’s got a nice touch on the ball and he’s tough,” Crusaders Coach Dan Hale said.
The Tar Heels were in zone defense until halftime, when they trailed 34-23. They switched to man-to-man after intermission, and Bianco went to work with shimmies and up-and-under moves to score nine points in the third quarter. Saint Louis surged to a 54-31 lead at the end of three quarters.
A concise and clear talk by Hale at halftime sparked a jolt into the Crusaders’ defensive mentality. Much of that intensity came from Hall and backcourt partners Malu Ing and Shoncin Revuelto.
“We talked about executing and taking care of your assignment defensively. Taking care of the small things. That’s what’s made us a solid team and that’s what we need to keep doing,” Hale said.
Down by 23 entering the fourth quarter, the Tar Heels refused to surrender.
Sakamoto hit back-to-back treys, triggering a time out by Saint Louis. However, the Tar Heels kept coming and cut the score to 60-50 on a 3 by Lieb. An elbow jumper by Sakamoto brought it down to 60-52 with less than a minute to play.
Ing connected on a foul shot and with 26.2 seconds to go, and Hall sank two more to put the game away.
“When we got a big lead, we were playing really well together, especially on defense. Coach preaches that we’re a defensive team and that’s where it starts,” Bianco said. “When they got back into it, we were letting off on their shooters, giving them open looks, and they have some good shooters on their team.”
The ILH football season had been set to restart on Monday, but was pushed back to Mar. 15.
“We’ve been going two times a week and the players feel it. We’re picking it up every week. We’re just excited for the decision (by the ILH) on Friday to see if we’re a go or not,” Bianco said. “We’re trying our best to stay ready.”
The Crusaders have two exhibition basketball games remaining. One, against Le Jardin, has been pushed back from Thursday to Saturday with a 3 p.m. tip-off time.
On Friday, Saint Louis will have its first school-team opponent of this exhibition schedule in a battle with Punahou. Tip off is set for 6 p.m. All Saint Louis games are streamed on Facebook Live.
The Tar Heels have been a mainstay in local youth leagues for years. Their lineup had included All-State selection Sage Tolentino of back-to-back state champion Maryknoll in recent years. Coach Lee said they’re hoping the 7-foot junior can join them when they travel for tourney play in Las Vegas in a few months.
Tolentino has been training in Ohio since last summer. He committed to Auburn in October.