Chloe Jackson goes big, Riverdale Baptist goes home as NACA champions

Riverdale Baptist guard Chloe Jackson came up with a steal in the final seconds of Saturday’s National Association of Christian Athletes Championship game against national power New Hope (N.C.), her team trailing by two and exhausted after a week-long string of tests in Tennessee. As Jackson crossed half-court, she had a decision to make: either try to take the ball all the way to the basket for the tie, and thus risk the clock hitting zero before she could get a shot off, or pull-up for a potential game-winning three-pointer.

In the most memorable possession of her young, decorated career, Jackson chose the latter. She stopped a few feet short of the arc, on the right perimeter, and drained the three-pointer at the buzzer to give the Crusaders a dramatic 59-58 win and their 15th NACA title.

“It’s just amazing, that chain of events that happened that gave us the win,” said Jackson, who finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds in the win. “As I was looking at the clock when I had the ball, there was five seconds left and we’re down by two, and I’m thinking, ‘I’m going for the win. Go big or go home.’”

The win over New Hope, which entered the NACA tournament with a 32-0 record and ranked fifth in USA Today’s national poll, capped a brilliant week by Riverdale Baptist (27-3). The Crusaders started the week with a convincing win in a scrimmage over then top-ranked and still unbeaten Eleanor Roosevelt, then traveled to Dayton, Tenn. and beat Lancaster Christian Academy (77-62) and Potter’s House Christian (85-75) in the quarter and semifinal rounds to reach the championship game.

The production of Riverdale’s guard tandem of Jackson and Chania Ray was on full display during the three-game set. The two combined for 39 points and 13 assists in the win over Lancaster, while Ray had one of the tournament’s best single-game performances against Potter’s House, posting 34 points, eight assists and four steals. Ray, who will play at Florida State next year, was named the tournament’s MVP and also garnered first-team all-tournament honors alongside teammates Jackson and Alysha Berry.

The tournament win earned Riverdale Baptist a birth into next month’s ESPN Rise National Invitational Tournament in New York, which will cap what has been a wild year for the Crusaders.

A highly touted team entering the season with three Atlantic Coast Conference recruits in Jackson (North Carolina State), Ray (Florida State) and Khalia Prather (Miami), Riverdale designed one of the area’s toughest schedules – and excelled. The Crusaders beat DCIAA champion Bell, No. 7 Damascus, No. 8 Elizabeth Seton, No. 10 Capitol Christian and No. 12 Stonewall Jackson.

But the Crusaders also struggled at times. They were blown out by St. Mary’s College High School (Ca.) in the opening game of the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix in December, then lost the following day against Regis Jesuit (Co.). Riverdale was also upset in late January by Capitol Christian, which was its last setback of a long season.

“We played a pretty doggone tough schedule, from around the country,” Riverdale Coach Sam Caldwell said. “We tried to find the very, very best basketball that we could play. . . . We’ve just worked hard. There hasn’t been any magic to this thing. We’ve just been in the gym working hard.

The win over New Hope capped a accolade-filled month for Jackson, who earlier in February was named as all-America honorable mention by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA), distinguishing her as one of the top 30 players in the country. She backed up the claim with a magical moment Saturday.

“I’ve never experienced anything like that. There was just a lot of thoughts going through my mind,” Jackson said of her game-winner. “Stuff like that only happens, to me, only in dreams.”

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