Shadow Hills rode a late third quarter surge and survived an early fourth quarter scare to win the first game of the much anticipated MaxPreps Holiday Classic, which kicked off Thursday morning at Rancho Mirage High School.
The annual tournament, now in its 11th year, began with the 9:30 a.m. tipoff that ultimately served as a prelude to a full day of games at nine different area schools throughout the valley.
The tournament, which includes 119 teams from across the country and beyond, will include a dunk contest and 3-point shootout Saturday, with the bracket of games concluding Monday.
In the tipoff game — and the only matchup of the day featuring two valley teams — Shadow Hills won a back-and-forth game against Desert Chapel, 62-53, on the second court adjacent to the gymnasium.
Eric Piscatella and Nathan Tiaga led the Knights with 19 points apiece, and their collective play in the backcourt was the catalyst to a big third quarter.
Tiaga finished the game with seven rebounds, six assists and eight steals. Piscatella had five 3-pointers, including three in the first quarter to jumpstart a Shadow Hills team that traditionally prides itself on its defense.
“Our program is all about playing defense and rebounding,” Shadow Hills head coach Aaron Wiltrout said. “But this was the most points we’ve scored all year, so we did a good job of shooting the ball and putting some points on the board.”
Tied at halftime, Shadow Hills started the second half on a 13-2 run, during which Tiaga had seven points and three steals.
With the pressure on, the Knights capitalized on the eight turnovers they created in the quarter to take a 14-point lead into the fourth quarter, outscoring the Eagles 18-4 in the third.
But a subsequent 7-0 Desert Chapel run to start the fourth breathed new life into the game, and the Eagles soon discovered that protecting the rim was a weak link in the Shadow Hills defense.
“We’ve had trouble handling big men this year,” Wiltrout said. “Any guy who’s about 6-4, 220, we’ve had trouble with this year. We need to do a better job defending the post and team rebounding.”
Roman Pellum, a 6-foot-4, 235-pound forward, scored 21 points and was the focal point of the Desert Chapel offense late, when it became apparent that he could score fairly easily in the post. He also made 7 of 8 free throws.
Still, Tiaga, just a sophomore, proved to be a terror on the perimeter, snagging four steals in the quarter to neutralize the Eagles’ attack. He’d pressure the ball, force a turnover and then get to the free throw line and convert on the other end of a fast break.
Though the early barrage of 3s got the Knights going earlier in the game, it was the defense that allowed them to finally put Desert Chapel away and advance unbeaten in the tournament.
“We’re still kicking the rust off this year and Desert Chapel did a good job of hanging around,” Wiltrout said. “So we’ll take some things we need to work on and try to keep improving.”