BRIARWOOD, NY - Cardinal Hayes dreams of an undefeated season almost went up in smoke on Wednesday afternoon, as Molloy had them on the ropes, up 3 with a minute to go, but where there is a will, there is a way, and a couple of key defensive stops, and a beautiful finished by Nathan Ekwu late gave the Cardinals a hard fought 61-60 victory.
The Stanners knew the importance of this game for them too. They have had an up and down season to date, and they knew a win on Wednesday would be a real notch in their belt, and give them the confidence to be the team that they want to be.
"This is a game where we can separate ourselves and help us be considered a part of the elite in this league," senior Jayson Cethoute said.
The fact that the game was so tight could've been because this was the first time Hayes had been in a game since beating Pope John XXIII last Monday, but coach Joe Lods wasn't about to use rust as an excuse, instead heaping praise on Molloy for what they did coming in.
"I give credit to Molloy. It had nothing to do with rust. I put it on Molloy's execution and how hard they played. They threw a lot of looks at us, and we were lucky to come out of here with the win honestly," Lods said.
The Stanners came out of the gate strong, and it was an unlikely source that have Molloy the edge in the early going in senior shooting specialist Mike Buckley. He canned 3 threes in the 1st half as they were more than holding their own, up 4 after one, and Buckley's performance was no surprised to Molloy head Coach Mike McCleary.
"He's a gamer," McCleary said. "He sometimes doesn't get off many shots because teams key up on him, but he got some good looks there and made them count."
While the opening quarter was great for Molloy, Hayes came back in the 2nd with senior Chris Robinson knocking down shots, scoring 11 points in the quarter, as the Cardinals finished the half on an 8-1 run to take a 34-29 lead into the break.
Momentum had cleats shifted at that point in favor of Hayes, but Stanners senior guard Gabe Kilpatrick wasn't fazed by going down. He has seen this script for his team before, but as he says, they always find a way back.
"We have a fighting spirit and will never give up," Kilpatrick said. "We knew we would come back because we aren't a team that gets knocked down and we are done, that's not us. We honestly thought we would win it."
They were strong words, but the Stanners didn't quit and did fight back, and they did so by not making a substitution the whole 2nd half until big man Kenny Hoyt fouled out with 2:43 left in the game and Hayes clinging to a 2 point lead. It was a decision by McCleary that he stood by after the game.
"You learn to trust people, and in this game I trusted them. I thought that group was playing well enough to win the game so I stuck with them," McCleary said.
They were, and when Kilpatrick finished on the inside off a feed from Cethoute, Molloy had grabbed their first lead of the 2nd half, going up 56-55 with 2:31 to go.
After a turnover, Cethoute finished going to the basket to go up three, but with 1:23 to go, Cethoute fouled out. Two of Molloy's starters were now disqualified, but down by 3, Lods wasn't feeling comfortable about how he felt his team was playing.
"I thought the last 3 or 4 minutes of the game we played pretty tight," Lods said. "During our timeouts I kept telling them play loose because this is just practice for us playing the tough games down the line in the playoffs."
Molloy was up 60-57 with a minute to go when Mustafa Jones scored off a nice inbounds play to cut the deficit to just one. The Stanners got the ball back and Aaron Walker, who hadn't played much in the game, was fouled with 38.6 seconds to go. He went to the line for 2 FT's, but the sophomore missed them both.
Hayes had the ball back with a chance to take the lead, and Jemal Smith got the ball up court to Robinson, but the pass almost went over his head, it was heading out of bounds until he made a beautiful save. Lods said that a turnover their probably meant the Cardinals first loss, but he saved it and found Ekwu wide open inside for the easy deuce with 15 seconds to go, and listening to Robinson explain the play, it seemed like that's exactly how it was drawn up.
"I was gonna go straight up, but I saw Nathan right there so I got it to him and he finished with ease," Robinson explained.
Instead of calling a timeout, Molloy decided to play it out, but after a near turnover, the Stanners did end up calling timeout with 1.6 seconds to play. After the timeout, both teams looked set to go, but Lods then decided to call his own timeout, explaining that after getting a chance to see what they were going to do, he wanted to talk to his guys one last time.
"I wanted to see their formation, and saw they were going with the line play," Lods said. "A lot of teams have trouble with it, so I told Shavar get to the front of the line, and it's usually the 3rd guy in line who gets the ball, so I wanted to make sure we knew who we were gonna guard, and fortunately off of it Shavar made a nice play at the end."
Shavar is Shavar Newkirk, and he stepped up big as the inbounds went to D'Ante Warren in the corner, but Newkirk read that and was ready as he was right in the guard's face as Warren was only able to get off a half hearted attempt that fell way short, and Hayes pulled one out in dramatic fashion, coming to Queens and getting the 61-60 win.
Robinson led all scorers in the game with 18 points, while Ekwu and Newkirk each added 12 in the win, and while Lods may have appeared to be the antithesis of calm on the outside, he admitted after the game that wasn't entirely the case.
"I always have that feeling of I don't want to lose any game, so there were some jitters, but I have to show the facade of calm regardless of what's going on inside," he explained. "Luckily, the masked man battled us back into it."
The masked man is Robinson, still wearing a protective mask after breaking 2 bones in his face against Mt. St. Michael 3 weeks ago, and he also explained the importance of the win after the game.
"These are stepping stones for us because we can lose any time, so games like these build team chemistry to know we can win in these tough conditions," Robinson explained
For Molloy, they got 17 points and 17 rebounds from Cethoute, with Kilpatrick adding 17 in defeat. C.J. Davis, the Stanners Columbia bound guard, was truly held in check scoring just 4 points, and being held without a FG in the game.
While the loss was tough for McCleary, he understood that the team is still pointing for the playoffs which are coming up right around the corner.
"I think we have the ability to beat anybody if we play the game right, today we were close, maybe a couple foul shots away, but it's a work in progress and hopefully be where we want to become the playoffs," the coach said.
Today was a good step for that as well McCleary added, knowing that giving this kind of effort against Cardinal Hayes shows a lot about what his team can do.
"They are the undefeated team in our league, so if that is considered the best the league has to offer, then I think we are among the best," McCleary would add.
They were close, but no cigar on this day as Cardinal Hayes did just enough to remain unbeaten, and keep their hopes of an unbeaten season alive, and Lods knows just how lucky they may have been.
"They played great, but we did just enough to pull it out and escape back to the Bronx with the win."