ST. ALBANS, N.Y. -- Just one day away from the championship, the More Than a Game Invitational held its second semifinal matchup Thursday evening.
After a heated battle on the asphalt of St. Albans Park, located on the corner of Merrick Blvd. and Sayres Ave., NYC Finest (N.Y.) squeaked past Benjamin Cardozo (N.Y.), 42-41, to advance to the chip.
Although both NYC Finest and the Judges played uncharacteristically in the first half, NYC Finest dominated the stanza with toughness moves on the interior and second-chance points through its rebounding strength.
Midway through the first half, NYC Finest's guard Jaquan McKennon ('15) netted a bucket and gave his team a 16-10 lead. After the basket, about three minutes went by without either team scoring points. Ultimately, NYC Finest's big man Mamadou Diarra (Putnam Science (Conn.) '15) helped end the dry streak and extended his squad's advantage to eight points, 18-10, at the free throw line.
A 3-pointer by Cardozo's Tareq Coburn ('16) cut the deficit back to six points, 20-14. The Judges would tack on three additional, unanswered points to slice the deficit to three, 20-17, by halftime.
Cardozo used the second half to reset its strategy against NYC Finest, becoming more willing to get the ball in motion and better move without the basketball. In fact, a sharp no-look pass by Judges' Rashond Salnave ('16) to one of his teammates on a fastbreak led to the Judges leading by three points, 23-20.
As all know, basketball is a game of runs. And, with Salnave drawing the defense to himself and other teammates getting touches, Cardozo continued its surge and jumped ahead by seven points, 27-20, on a bucket by Coburn midway through the stanza.
Having not scored since late in the first half, NYC Finest shut the water off with a free throw, but the Judges answered quickly with a deuce and extended their lead to as many as eight points, 29-21.
However, McKennon and the rest of NYC Finest, heeded to the call of duty, adding a few points to the scoreboard. Still, on Cardozo's next possession, Armando Dunn ('15) grabbed an offensive board and assisted Salnave on a basket at the rack.
At first, it seemed that NYC Finest was on a hamster wheel leading to nowhere, as Cardozo had a reaction to every action, a counter-punch to every punch NYC Finest threw. By the 1:47 mark, the Judges were leading by seven points, 39-32, with NYC Finest making nary a dent in the Cardozo advantage.
Yet, even in the 1:30 left to execute, with contributions from teammate Hamidou Diallo (Putnam Science (Conn.) '17), NYC Finest staged a 7-0 run, capped by a strong attack to the basket by McKennon, to tie the matchup at 39 with 45 seconds on the clock.
Free throws by NYC Finest would put the squad ahead by two points, 41-39. Salnave was able to draw the foul, but did not capitalize on his opportunity at the stripe. A shot-attempt by Coburn also missed the mark, forcing the Judges to foul in order to slow the clock down. McKennon hit 1-of-2 from the line, putting NYC Finest up by three.
With less than 21 seconds left in the game, Salnave craftily drew contact and sank both free throws. Although the two points would narrow the Cardozo deficit to just one, 42-41, the Judges would prove to be 'so close yet so far' as the team failed to execute on its possessions down the stretch.
NYC Finest's McKennon posted a game-high tie of 17 points, 10 in the first half. Teammate Diallo finished with nine points as Diarra added six. Cardozo's Salnave netted the game-high tie of 17 points, nine in the first stanza, while teammate Coburn had six.