HICKSVILLE, NY - Sometimes when you get two phenomenal players going against each other, something special could happen, and something special certainly took place at Holy Trinity H.S. on Friday night when Bianca Cuevas and Nazareth took on Sierra Calhoun and Christ the King in a CHSAA "AA" State Semifinal.
The McDonald's All-American's went toe to toe, but it was Cuevas who came up with the big plays late, scoring 50 points en route to pulling the Kingsmen back from a double digit deficit to advance to Saturday's championship game with a 85-82 victory over the top seeded Royals.
Having lost to the Christ the King twice this season, Nazareth felt a certain desire to not feel that pain to their rivals for a 3rd time this season, and Cuevas before the game said she had a feeling that she was going to have a special game.
"I felt like I was going to have a big game before the game because on the layup line I was feeling good so I told coach I was gonna shoot well and he was ok let's see," Cuevas said.
The coach she speaks of is her head coach at Nazareth Ron Kelley. He said he felt his team turned a bit of a corner after the win over Moore Catholic in the state quarterfinals on Wednesday, adding that the loss they have to Molloy last week in the Brooklyn/Queens Diocese quarterfinals may have actually helped his team going forward.
"We had no energy, no intensity, no aggressiveness against Molloy, and we watched the tape and I went a little crazy on them, but I think they realized that one more loss and they were done," Kelley said.
The game pitted what most consider the two top teams NYC, and early on it was a shootout between Cuevas and Calhoun. One would knock down a three, then the other would answer. One would score getting the rim, then the other would do the same.
There were 28 fouls called in the first half which did slow the game down quite a bit, but the two stars did everything you would expect from them in such a big game. Calhoun had a bit more help from her teammates in the first 16 minutes with senior forward Kollyns Scarbrough finishing on the inside, and sophomore guard Sydney Zambrotta scoring from the perimeter. It's as the Calhoun/Cuevas show though with Calhoun scoring 25 at the half, and Cuevas pumping in 24 of her own, with Christ the King holding a high scoring, and entertaining 46-39 lead at the half.
Nazareth was in a decent amount of foul trouble with senior forwards Yazmine Belk and Jen Fay each saddled with 3 fouls, but even though most of its secondary stars were on the bench, Kelley said he implored Cuevas in the locker to get others involved more.
"At halftime I told her you are going to have to play with your team more, and make passes more, and she said ok coach," Kelley said.
She started to do that some in the 3rd quarter, but with CK holding a 59-49 lead late in the quarter, Cuevas said she abandoned that plan and told her coach there was now a new plan.
"I told him to stop calling plays because they couldn't guard me," Cuevas said. "I said we don't need them, they weren't working very well anyway, so I just said don't run nothing."
Kelley said he gave Cuevas the ok, telling her that we will go with you, and he was not disappointed.
Cuevas regularly got to the basket, scoring 16 straight for Nazareth. She was able to blow by whoever Christ the King put on her, and it was becoming obvious to everyone that she was going to will her team as far as she could.
Defensively, Nazareth stepped up as well, holding Calhoun to just 11 in the 2nd half, with Kelley saying they changed a couple things up at the half to try and get the Duke bound guard out of her comfort zone.
Nazareth took their first lead of the game with 4:43 to go in the game when Cuevas finished on a beautiful scoop off a blow by down the left side while getting fouled. It was an incredible move and Kelley at that point said he just sat back and took in the amazing show he was watching.
The Royals didn't roll over though at that point. They grabbed the lead back and it seemed like the teams started to trade baskets. Cuevas had a big bucket to score her 48th and 49th points of the game to see the Kingsmen go up 83-82 with just under a minute to go.
Christ the King had a couple of chances down the stretch with Calhoun missing a runner in the lane where there was a lot of contact but no call. Cuevas grabbed the rebound and went 1 of 2, getting her 50th point with 8 seconds to go. The Royals had another shot, but Scarbrough missed on a drive inside, and following Belk going 1 of 2 from the line with 3 seconds to go Zambrotta had one last chance to tie, but her last second half court heave was short, and Nazareth stunned defending champs Christ the King in the state semis, 85-82.
The South Carolina bound Cuevas had a high school career high of 50, saying she scored 51 once in an AAU tournament 2 years ago, while Fay added 15 for Nazareth in the win.
In defeat, Calhoun paced the Royals with 36 points, with Scarbrough chipping in with 15 as well.
Christ the King coach Bob Mackey said it was not a lot of fun in the Royals locker room after the loss, but he did admit it was quite a performance with Cuevas and Calhoun going at it back and forth, saying in his many years of coaching, there was only one game he could compare it to.
"1990. Jamal Mashburn scored 42 for Hayes and Adrian Autry had 36 for Tolentine when Hayes won in the CHSAA semifinals at St. John's University."
He said this game was that good, and he added that maybe he could've thrown the kitchen sink at Cuevas and double and triple teamed her, but he said that he doesn't believe that is basketball and just tipped his hat to her, though he admitted that the loss is will be an extremely tough one to get over.
Calhoun added that the loss stung and hurt very badly, and that it will be with her for a long time as well knowing that she didn't go out on top as a senior the way she wanted.
Cuevas though was relishing in her 50 point performance, calling herself "a little cuckoo", but that she just wanted to win and she knew that getting to the basket, she couldn't be stopped.
She went on to call it an incredible feeling to get past the Royals, but admitted that the ultimate goal is still one game away.
"We have another game tomorrow and we will come out like this and hopefully go to Albany and win a Federation Title because that's what we want, we want to win it all."
St. Anthony's Knocks Off St. Mary's, 60-53
Seniors Kalifa Davy and Chastity Taylor had 17 and 16 points respectively as they guided the Friars past the Gaels in a game they led in for the entire 2nd half to take down their league rivals by 7.
Junior guard Mei-Lyn Bautista had 16 points to pace St. Mary's, while junior forward Jordan Agustus had 15 points and 10 rebounds in the loss for the Gaels.
The Friars got revenge on St. Mary's, who beat them to take the NSCHSAA championship just last week, but the bigger prize, the state championship berth, now awaits St. Anthony's on Saturday night at 7pm.