NYCHoops - Cadets Take LuHi to the Wire
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Cadets Take LuHi to the Wire

Curbelo's game winner gives L.I. Lutheran a dramatic 102-101 overtime win over the Albany Academy Cadets

BROOKVILLE, NY- Saturday's LuHi Invitational title game saw a battle of two titans with Long Island Lutheran playing host to Albany Academy as a pair of New York's best squared off on what was the Crusaders senior night.

It's been this senior class that has made the past few years so special for LuHi, with lead guard and Illinois commit Andre Curbelo '20 leading the way. Of course then it would be the dazzling floor general who would carry the Crusaders to the win as with Long Island Lutheran down 101-100 with 8.7 seconds to go in OT it was Curbelo would miss a floater in the lane, but get his own rebound and put back the miss at the buzzer to send the LuHi senior's out in style with a thrilling 102-101 victory over Albany Academy.

While some may have come into this one writing in a Long Island Lutheran win, the Cadets didn't have that mindset as they to a man believed they could not just hang with, but take down the Crusaders with Andre Jackson '20 saying he felt them play as a team together would enable them to shock the #1 ranked team in New York State in Class AA.

"It's not about having five McDonald's All-Americans, it's about playing together as a team and getting everyone the ball and if we did that I felt we would have a really good chance," Jackson said of his belief coming into Saturday's game.

On the other side you have Curbelo who was playing his final game in the LuHi Dome as he calls it. He was playing with his parents and grandmother in attendance as they made the trip up from his native Puerto Rico to watch him on senior night, giving Curbelo extra motivation to make sure he finished out his final game at home on the right note.

Rafael Pinzon & Ander Curbelo
Rafael Pinzon & Ander Curbelo (M. Libert)

"They always battle us hard and always give us a tough game but in my last game at home I wasn't going home with an L, that just wasn't something I was even thinking about," Curbelo explained.

Both stars had their reasons for believing they would be on the team to pull out the victory on Saturday, and in what could only be described as a Game of the Year candidate this one more than lived up to the hype coming in producing what is a sure fire instant classic.

It was clear out of the gate that Albany Academy wasn't going to back down as the Cadets moved the ball around well just as Jackson said they needed to and we're getting excellent looks from the outside. Preston Graber '21 hit four triples in the first half, while Jackson and Marlon Campbell '20 each drained three as the Cadets as a team had 11 first half three's shooting it from over 60% from behind the arc in the opening 16 minutes of the game.

Long Island Lutheran would have been in a tremendous hole in the early going in this one if not for the play of Rafael Pinzon '21 who single handedly kept the Crusaders in this one as he himself had 7 three's in the first half to keep LuHi close with Albany Academy taking a 53-51 lead into the locker room.

That first half shooting performance as a whole from Albany Academy though had Long Island Lutheran head coach John Buck left to just scratch his head as he prides his Crusaders on being a strong defensive team, though on Saturday he said that the Cadets left him with more questions than answers.

"LuHi basketball you've known for years we pride ourselves on our defense and I was running out of answers there," Buck admitted. "We threw four different defenses at them and they were ready to knock down every shot they took."

With Pinzon carrying the load in the first half Buck was also looking for someone else who may not be among his star seniors to rise and give his team a spark on the offensive side. Enter freshman Jayden Reid '23 who would drain a three to open the third quarter and give Long Island Lutheran a lead that for the rest of the second half they would not relinquish.

The Crusaders were getting more inside from Zed Key '20 as well in the third, and with Curbelo getting hot as well with 8 in the quarter after scoring just 8 in the first half as a hole the LuHi lead was pushed up to 75-69 heading to the fourth.

After a technical foul was called on Albany Academy head coach Brian Fruscio with 2:27 left in the fourth the Crusaders lead was bumped all the way up to 91-82 and at that point many in the stands had to be thinking that after a tough fight it was Long Island Lutheran who would cruise home to a comfortable victory, but Jackson said he and his teammates had other thoughts as to how the game would finish out.

"When Coach Fruscio got that technical there it got all up in my head but my teammates got to me and said this is bigger than one call because we got to get this win and right then I was determined to make sure we did that," Jackson stated.

Jackson would connect on a three to narrow the deficit to 6, and then Graber would drain a right wing three to make it a 3-point game as slowly but surely the Cadets made their run. It was a 93-90 game with 15 seconds left in the Crusaders favor though with Reid going to the line for a 1 and 1. Making one in that spot could've sealed the game for LuHi, but after he missed the front end it was Jackson's time to shine.

The UConn bound wing got the ball and took it up court himself and instead of kicking out to a teammate on the wing he pulled up from 30 feet straightaway and drained the triple to tie the game up at 93 with under 10 seconds to go. Long Island Lutheran didn't call timeout and while they got a decent look at a three the Curbelo shot was off and a stunned Crusaders crowd saw a 9-point lead in the final 2:27 disappear as LuHi and Albany Academy were tied at 93 and heading to OT.

In that spot seeing a lead of that margin get away would've rattled many teams, but Buck said he understood the situation at hand and felt as he had a mature enough team to make sure they calmed down and finished the job the way they needed to.

"It's about refocusing in that situation and stringing together one or two stops with a rebound and be smart with your fouls because it was still was anyone's game," Buck explained.

Much the same way the third quarter started it was LuHi jumping out to a quick OT lead as they scored the first four of the extra session before Graber settled things down for the Cadets with a huge left wing three to get them back within 97-96.

For the first time since early in the third quarter it was Campbell who was fouled on a scrum on the floor fighting for a loose ball with 8.7 seconds left and Academy down just 100-99. They had clawed their way back with the unsung senior going to the line for a pair of FT's to try and put the Cadets in front. He calmly connected on the first one, and then after a Long Island Lutheran timeout he connected on the second to give Albany Academy a 101-100 lead.

At that point another timeout was called and the Crusaders went to the bench for the first time in the second half and OT trailing. Buck drew up a play to put the ball in Curbelo's hands wanting the future Fighting Illini star to make the final decision, with Curbelo saying as he walked back on the court he knew this was his moment to be the hero in his final moments ever playing on the Crusaders home floor.

"I'm sorry if my teammates see this, I'm sorry but I had to take it, I'm sorry I was going to take that shot and get us the win," Curbelo admitted.

He got the ball and drove down the lane and missed on a contested runner against a pair of defenders, but managed to somehow get the offensive rebound against two bigger Cadet players and just before the buzzer put up a short jumper that was nothing but net as Curbelo and the rest of his Long Island Lutheran teammates ran into the crowd to celebrate with their fans and fellow students in what was a thriller from Brookville as the Crusaders knocked off Albany Academy on Curbelo's last second heroics, 102-101.

In the high scoring affair, it was Pinzon who had 22 of his team high 26 points in the first half to lead all LuHi scorers while Key and the star of the night in Curbelo each added 21 points apiece in the winning effort.

For Albany Academy in the loss they got a game high 27 points from Jackson with Graber going 7-12 from three in the game and finishing with 25 points for the Cadets. It may not have been a win like Jackson was hoping for but he was proud of the effort that he and his team put together and felt as if this result proves they are also not just among New York's best, but among the best as well in the country.

"This game says to me that we are one of the best teams in the country," Jackson stated. "LuHi in my opinion is a top five team in the country and I think we can compete with anybody and we showed that today."

That Albany Academy certainly did as they hung toe to toe with one of the best in the nation in Long Island Lutheran with the Cadets being a Curbelo buzzer beater away from them truly shocking the high school basketball world.

It wasn't meant to be, at least not on this day for the Cadets though as Curbelo was determined to end his senior season on Long Island Lutheran's home court on a positive note, and with that now complete he says he is ready and primed for more as he wants to truly punctuate his career on the best note possible and lead the Crusaders to back to back NYS Class AA Federation Tournament of Champions titles.

"We are aiming for the state championship," Curbelo explained. "We want to go back to back so badly and hopefully I can end my career here like that on a perfect note."