Cardozo Wins 8th; Coach Naclerio Wins 700th
OAKLAND GARDENS, NY - Benjamin Cardozo H.S. in Queens was packed full on Monday afternoon as a battle of Queens unbeaten took place with the Judges hosting H.S. of Construction. The game held even more meaning for most of the Cardozo crowd as head coach Ron Naclerio was looking for career win #700. It proved not to be easy, but after trailing through three quarters, the Judges outscored the Red Hawks 25-12 in the fourth and pulled away late for the 73-61 victory.
According to the players on the Cardozo team, you could tell that Monday's game was a bit different. Naclerio was not acting like his normal self, point guard Elijah McNeely '15 said, knowing he was going for something special against a very good team in Construction.
"He was more cautious than normal, a bit more nervous," McNeely admitted. "You know, the 700th win and he wanted to get it, and he knew we were playing against good competition today as well."
The competition was their rivals in Queens, H.S. of Construction, and even though the opportunity was there to motivate his Red Hawks squad with the ability to keep Naclerio away from win #700 before the Christmas holiday, head coach Cory Semper said that was never a part of the conversation with his team.
"It's not motivation, we just wanted to win the game," Semper said. "I don't care about that stuff. That's not a part of me, it's a part of him. His 700th win is for him, not me."
Wanting to win the game to remain unbeaten was another big talking point for both teams, with both teams stars, Rashond Salnave '16 for Cardozo, and Justin Wright-Foreman '15 for H.S. of Construction, both wanting bragging rights and the ability to go into the short break as Kings of Queens.
Both teams came out like they wanted that title too as it was a back and forth contest in the early going with the long ball proving key. Salnave got off a good look from long range early on, but Construction seemed to be the team with the better range to start as Micaiah Goosby '16, who was filling in for the suspended Tahleek Weekes '15, knocking down a pair of treys in the opening quarter, and Wright-Foreman hit the team's third right before the buzzer ending the first to give the Red Hawks a 19-18 lead after 1.
Another interesting note to add into the game is the friendship between many of the Cardozo and Construction players, with Salnave and Wes Nelson '16 of the Red Hawks especially close, but knowing how big of a game this is, Salnave said friendships go to the side in this one.
"The friendship is not on the court, on the court there is no friends," Salnave explained. "I don't see them as friends or family, they are my opponents out there and I want to do whatever I can to get ahead of them."
With that mindset, Salnave came alive in the 2nd quarter, as he and guard Aaron Walker '16 combined for 13 points in the 2nd as they started to pull away a bit from their rivals. It was tied at 27 with 3:08 to go in the half, but Cardozo went on to score 7 straight points, included in which was a beautiful steal of an inbounds and a finish inside from Walker which helped put the Judges up at the half, 36-30.
There was no talk of Naclerio's possible 700th career win at halftime in the Cardozo locker room, knowing that there was a much more important part of just getting the win, with McNeely saying the win was truly all that mattered.
"Coach really just wanted us to win the game. He didn't care how much we won it by, he just wanted the win," McNeely said.
Things were looking up for Cardozo in getting the win as after a Salnave short jumper off the glass, and a corner threw from Walker, the Judges took their largest lead to that points, going up 41-32 with 3:38 to play in the 3rd, and with Construction needing a big shot, they turned to their star in Wright-Foreman.
He got the ball in the open court and threw down a powerful slam, and that was followed up by 5 more Red Hawk points, to cut the deficit to 41-39 with just over 2 minutes to go in the quarter. Construction had retaken the momentum and after a strong closing 30 seconds of the third where Goosby connected on his 4th three of the game, and then Wright-Foreman buried one from straightway, H.S. of Construction had come all the way back and actually taken a 49-48 lead heading into the final quarter.
It was an interesting talk heading into the final 8 minutes of the game, with Naclerio saying that he pulled over Salnave and Walker and explained to them what they had to do.
"I spoke to Ray and said Ray, we are going to make a run. Then I went to Aaron and said you know what to do defensively," Naclerio said.
Naclerio actually ended up making a tactical switch defensively, moving Walker off of Wright-Foreman and moving McNeely onto the Construction star, feeling that McNeely might be able to pressure Wright-Foreman a bit more before he caught the ball, knowing that allowing him to catch the ball first could mean trouble for the Judges.
"Once you let Justin catch it, you might not stop him," Naclerio admitted.
It proved to be a great adjustment as Wright-Foreman was limited to 6 fourth quarter points, with none coming until 3:30 left in the game when Cardozo had already re-established control, with Salnave hitting a big three to have the Judges go up 65-53, a moment where Naclerio said he started to see the writing on the wall in this one.
"I think when Ray hit that three was I think was first time I really realized that we had it," Naclerio stated.
He may have thought that, but there was still moments of trouble for the Judges who were sloppier with the ball that Naclerio says he would've liked. Wright-Foreman hit on a runner in the lane to make it a 67-61 game with just over a minute to play, but the Judges came up huge from the charity stripe, with McNeely hitting 4 clutch free throws in the final minute, and Construction had two straight possessions where they turned the ball over in big spots as Cardozo scored the last 6 points of the game to finish out a big 73-61 victory, and get Naclerio his 700th career win.
Salnave and Walker formed to be a potent duo against Construction with Salnave scoring 24 points, and Walker adding 23, with Tareq Coburn '16 also providing a big game with 13 points and 10 rebounds in what was another great effort by the junior.
While the win was important, and it was big for all the Judges to remain unbeaten, the 700th win was special for all, especially McNeely, a four year player for Cardozo, who Naclerio says he has known for years, even teaching his mother in 1984. McNeely says the first day he came to play for Naclerio, he knew the coach was a little crazy, but he cannot imagine having a better coach in his eyes.
"He was kinda crazy, I'm not gonna lie," McNeely said with a smile. "I saw how passionate he was about the game though, and how he wanted everyone to do what he knew they could do and help them reach their potential."
That's why he is special to McNeely, but he is clearly special to everyone. There were a great number of Cardozo alums on hand to be there for the milestone win, and all of his current team swarmed him after the game in celebration, but Naclerio himself says that even though #700 has been on his mind all week, it had slipped his mind during the game.
"I forgot all about it until the buzzer rang and my assistant coach Mike Blissett came over to me and hugged me and said congratulations and that's when I was reminded because when you are in the moment, you forget about individual accomplishments." Naclerio said about his feelings as the game ended.
The accomplished for Naclerio meant nothing to Semper and his team who were just hoping to leave Cardozo as the lone remaining unbeaten in the Queens "AA". They fell, but got an amazing effort from Wright-Foreman who had a game high 28 points, while Goosby, who was willing in for Weekes, added 14.
It was an especially tough loss for Semper because he felt his team had the chance to win the game, and it boiled down in his eyes to the little things that they just weren't not able to do down the stretch.
"I wanted to win the game and we were right there," Semper said. "We missed free throws, the ball didn't move, it was just simple stuff. We didn't box out. Just basketball."
It was a disappointing finish to a winnable game in the eyes of Semper, but it was a big win for Naclerio and his squad, achieving both their goals of winning game #700 for Naclerio, and going into the Christmas break unbeaten, which means all will be well this Christmas for the coach, who is 3rd all-time in coaching wins in the state of New York behind a pair of legendary coaches, the late Archbishoop Molloy coach Jack Curran and former Campus Magnet coach Charles Granby.
He may not enjoy it right now as he says he is already focusing in on Thomas Edison, which is their first game back after the break on January 6th, but there will be a time over the next few days he will savor it, and have it sink in as to just how big of an accomplishment this is.
"I think at some moment I will. I will probably have one day during the holidays where my friends and I and the team will go celebrate and enjoy it," Naclerio said.
Getting the win was big, but getting it against H.S. of Construction, another very good team he admitted they could've lost to, made it even more special, and while he is going to enjoy the milestone win sometime soon, he also will be celebrating a very important league win as well, at least for a little bit.
"We have to go over there still and give it our best shot, but that's not until February 5th so we will enjoy this now one for sure."