While holiday shoppers looking for last minute gifts stand in line at Target, teams in New York are standing in line for a shot at a different target: The #1 ranked L.I. Lutheran Crusaders.
"We realize that we have a target on our backs", said LuHi senior forward Jordan Allen. "We're #1 on Long Island." They're pretty much #1 in the New York area too, and the target got bigger and more attractive when power forward Terry Brutus transferred out of the school last week. Many a hoop fan questioned how the Crusaders would fare in the paint without the services of the gritty Brutus.
For about 24 minutes, the #4 ranked Harborfields Tornadoes had the scope set on their target, and had all it took to snipe them. But Allen and the Crusaders evaded danger and answered the skeptics with a dominant fourth quarter, leading LuHi to a 63-46 win in front of a rambunctious home crowd.
"Terry left the program", said Allen. "But when he was here, we had a certain chemistry. Now, guys have to look for their shots more, be a bit more selfish, but for the sake of the team." In his second consecutive 20+ point game, 15 of Allen's game high 22 points came in the do or die moments of the second half. He dunked, he cleaned up, he wielded his pivot foot like a weapons specialist- in addition to snatching 7 rebounds and providing the jumper cable for a LuHi team that saw their leading scorer in foul trouble and had their work cut out for them with the Tornadoes.
Harborfields big man Nick Fessenden and PG Lucas Woodhouse picked apart the Crusaders' defense early, leading the defending Suffolk 'A' champs out to a commanding 12-4 start. But in a game characterized by runs and ebb and flow, Villanova-bound Achraf Yacoubou (20 points, 7 rebounds) led LuHi on a 9-0 answer charge to make things even. For the next 16 minutes, neither team would lead by more than four points and the game would feature 14 lead changes and 8 ties.
As the game grew more intense, the crowd followed suit. Former Crusader Joe Savaglio was now in the opposite locker room as a visitor, and the Harborfields senior got a mild dose of LeBron James' December 2nd treatment at Quicken Loans Arena. The taunts and jeers came, but the 6'4 Savaglio calmly sunk a trey from the corner to silence the crowd and put Harborfields up, 23-20. Junior Justin Ringen would bury another one from deep, but just as quickly, Yacoubou sent home an alley-oop dunk off of one of many Shaun Lawton assists on the night -Lawton tallied 11 of those in the game- and tied the game at 26 with a put back. So went the back and forth plot well into the third quarter, as the Tornadoes looked to be in prime position to blemish the Crusaders' perfect record. Harborfields' zone defense prevented LuHi from running amok, and at halftime, the game was gridlocked at 30.
"In the first half, (Harborfields) flat out played harder than us", Allen admitted. "(Head) Coach (John) Buck got in our faces at halftime." Coach Buck tipped his hat to the Tornadoes after the game.
"I give credit to Harborfields, their game plan was excellent", Coach Buck said. "They ran that 1-3-1, they took us out of what we wanted to do. We really couldn't run like we wanted to in the first half."
Although both units continued to jockey for position on the scoreboard, LuHi's game plan began to slowly take effect in the closing moments of the third quarter.
"(Harborfields forward) Matt McLeod is a really good driver, so we wanted to play him tight. I think our depth and athleticism helped us get out on the break more in the second half as well."
The Crusaders were able to force McLeod into a few turnovers, but their stops came with a hefty price tag. Yacoubou picked up his fourth personal in the third quarter, which could symbolize dangerous territory if there was nobody to take charge. But with Allen accepting all S.O.S calls and Harborfields struggling from both the field and the line -the Tornadoes failed to net a field goal in the fourth quarter and shot 5 of 13 from the charity stripe in the second half- LuHi began to pull away, thanks to a blistering 20-3 deathblow run.
"We had to turn it up in the second half", said Allen. "But we have to keep playing like we're 0-7, not 7-0".
Mike Florin added 5 points and 5 assists for LuHi, in addition to holding Woodhouse scoreless (although the junior PG did tally a fair helping of assists). McLeod scored 15 to lead Harborfields, while Savaglio and Ringen added 10 each.