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Illardi sparks Indian comeback
Ripons Nico Ilardi erupted for 12 fourth-quarter points Saturday to lead the Knights to a thrilling 56-55 come-from-behind win over visiting Ripon Christian. - photo by GARY JENSEN/

RIPON – Ripon’s Nico Ilardi saw to it that Ripon Christian was not going to get one last chance Saturday night when he stepped in front of a long pass in the closing seconds to preserve a heart-stopping 56-55 Trans-Valley League boys basketball win at Ripon High.

“I saw him running down the court and play safety in football I decided to follow him and I was in the right lane,” Ilardi said. 

With the Indians trailing by nine points entering the final period, Ilardi ignited a ferocious comeback with 12 of his game-high 15 points in the fourth quarter with two baskets from behind the arc. 

“We were a little down on energy and I came in and tried to bring us some energy,” Ilardi said. “I was shooting the ball well earlier in the day when we had our shoot around so I guess I just kept it going.”

He kept it going, but the Knights (7-4 TVL, 15-9 overall) did not trail until there was 5.5 seconds left in the game when Vincent Olmo (15 points, 11 rebounds) the second of two free throws to make the score 56-55, setting up Ilardi’s last-second interception.

“On those free throws I just tried to block out all the noise like I was at practice by myself,” Olmo said. “We knew we wouldn’t get it all back at once after we fell behind, so we had to make every possession count and play great defense.”

James Gaalswyk had two big defensive plays in the final minute for Ripon, snagging a rebound and then with 15 seconds remaining and the score tied at 55, Gaalswyk made a steal that led to Olmo’s final free throw.   

“Defense is a vital part of our team,” Gaalswyk said. “We work on it at least half of the time in practice.

“On hat steal at the end Kyle (Sisk) was forcing him left into me and I just poked it out and got it up court.”

Ripon Christian exploded for 24 points behind four 3-pointers in the second quarter for a 34-23 halftime lead and maintained the pressure through three periods, leading 44-35 entering the fourth quarter.

“I’ve seen this before many times and I was wondering if maybe it just wasn’t our night.” Indians coach Rod Wright said. “We’ve played better in the second half all season and finally we got into some sort of rhythm. But RC put it all out there and they played hard.

“Nico (Ilardi) showed up in the fourth quarter and that was the difference in the game. He had two big 3-pointers. This was fun and now we get to go for 12-0 on Tuesday.”

Even when it was going bad for Ilardi, it went good. Trailing 51-47 with 3:40 left in the game, Ilardi drove toward the basket when he went to dish the ball off. It was deflected and slammed back to him so he took the deflection and banked it in to draw Ripon within 51-49.

“I was trying to get it to Adam Wood in the corner,” Ilardi said. “It got deflected right into my hands and I just went up with it.”

With one league game remaining on Tuesday, Ripon Christian came into Friday night’s game seeded No. 2 in Division VI.

“This was just two good teams going at it,” Knights coach Mark Hofman said. “We’re both playing for top seeds in the playoffs so these games matter.

“They’re a good team and eventually they started hitting some outside shots. They were bound to start scoring.”

Kyle Sisk scored 14 points for the Indians as did Fletcher Jackson for Ripon Christian. Andrew Vander Molen (six rebounds) chipped in 13 points for the Knights and Braden Van Groningen added 12 points.