By Van Williams
Classic Media Director
Tounde Yessoufou brought some thunder and lightning to the Alaska Airlines Classic. He also made it rain.
The freshman phenom for St. Joseph of Santa Maria, California, buried a step-back, 3-pointer to the delight of the crowd on a night when he dropped in 27 points to lead the Knights to a 62-50 win over ThunderRidge of Denver, Colorado, in the Classic semifinals at West High.
The loss was the first in 13 games this season for the No. 1 ranked team out of Colorado and snapped ThunderRidge’s 20-game winning streak dating to last season.
The win moved the No. 15 ranked team out of California to 18-2 on the season and into Saturday’s Classic championship game against East Anchorage, which has won 35 games in a row.
Yessoufou scored 20 points in the second half and finished with eight rebounds and two blocked shots, mere mortal numbers compared to his 24-16-7 stat line a night earlier.
Still, the 6-foot-5 human highlight video clip was up to his usual tricks – skywalking for rebounds, gliding for layups and rocking the rim.
A crowd of several thousand showed up to watch arguably the best freshman in the country take on ThunderRidge’s 6-foot-9 Zach Keller, who is headed to Wake Forest.
The college-caliber talent in this marvelous matchup gave Great Alaska Shootout vibes. People came out to watch the stars, hoping for something special to happen.
Yessoufou, as expected, stole the show.
His step-back 3-pointer gave St. Joseph a 25-13 lead early in the second quarter. He’s a banger and a bomber. He’s got a nice stroke and showed it off at the free-throw line with an 8-for-8 showing.
He also showcased an arsenal of dunks after leaking out and beating the defense down the court. He had a two-handed hammer and one-handed skywalker.
Another major Yessoufou highlight came when he blocked Keller’s shot attempt at the rim, which might have gotten the biggest reaction from the crowd.
Keller opened the game with a 3-pointer but finished the game with only nine points on 3-of-11 shooting. His body language revealed his frustration after another off night.
Jackson Brennan, Joe Bilello and Andrew Crawford picked up the slack for ThunderRidge. Brennan finished with a game-high 16 points, Bilello added 12 and Crawford 11.
Down 45-24, ThunderRidge flipped a switch and suddenly looked like a different team, using a 19-2 run to claw back within 47-43.
Brennan’s 3-pointer and five straight points by Bilello closed the deficit to 47-35 heading into the fourth. Keller scored the first five points of the fourth, including an and-1, and Bilello drained a 3-pointer.
Enter Luis Marin, who drained a must-have 3-pointer to stop the bleeding and give St. Joseph some breathing room. Yessoufou scored his team’s final eight points, including a fight for a loose ball that was pure hustle and muscle.
St. Joseph will play East Anchorage (10-0) in Saturday’s championship game at 7:30 p.m. at West High. ThunderRidge will face tournament host West Anchorage in the third-place game at 6 p.m. at West High.
St. Joseph Knights 16 15 16 15 – 62
ThunderRidge Grizzlies 11 8 16 15 – 50
St. Joseph – Roman 6, Marin 11, Kuykendall 6, Vidor 7, Allen 3, Mensah 0, Telcide 0, Yessoufou 27, Hamilton 2.
ThunderRidge – Binu 0, Bilello 12, Karnisovas 2, Brennan 16, Walkowiak 0, Cremeen 0, Crawford 11, Spann 0, Keller 9.