BRONX, NY- The Christ the King Royals once again epitomized what it means to play as a team.
Sunday's CHSAA 'AA' Championship at Fordham University would take them through some unexpected twists and turns but they would stick to the plan as well as improvise towards the end. Continuing their quest for a Federation State chip repeat, CTK never relinquished their lead as they inched past a resilient Rice Raiders, 60-57.
CTK's Corey Edwards, who was absent for last season's championship run due to injury, was named the tournament MVP. "You don't even know [how big this win was]. Words cannot describe" said the George Mason bound point guard who had 11 assists and 4 steals.
The Royals would jump out early to a 15-0 lead sparked by a steal and lay-up from sharpshooter Omar Calhoun. Late in the quarter, however, Rice made a push as drives by Emmanuel Andujar and three pointers by Melvin Johnson led a 12-4 Raider response that closed the gap to 19-12 going into the second quarter.
The tag team of Calhoun and combo guard T.J. Curry would keep the Raiders at bay, re-extending their lead to ten points midway through the quarter as Edwards, skillfully facilitated at the point. With Syracuse bound football player Terrell Hunt guarding Jermaine Sanders, Rice's primary shooter was held to an unusually low eight points.
"Our strategy was to make sure that Jermaine Sanders doesn't kill us. I think Terrell Hunt did a great job on him," said Royals head coach Joe Arbitello.
Hunt said that he saw himself as the team's enforcer. "I'm the intimidator. I'm the football player. Coach [Arbitello] puts me on their best player and he expected me to do the intangibles." Hunt also did a good job with the tangibles scoring 15 points to go along with 10 rebounds.
The Cincy-bound Sanders did manage to shake himself loose late in the second quarter for a 3-ball but that represented his only first half points. That and an Andujar buzzer beater would be still be enough to pull the Raiders to within 7 points of the lead at the half.
At the top of the third, up 31-24, Edwards would drain a three that would ignite a 9-2 run by the Royals. A pass from Curry to 6'8" senior Chris Ortiz increased the CTK lead to 14 points with 5:23 left in the third. With Sanders effectively neutralized by the Royals defense, Andujar stepped up his intensity and aggressively attacked the basket, spearheading the Raiders attack. An and-1 by the senior seemed to shift the momentum, cutting the Royals lead to 4 points while handing Calhoun his 4th personal foul. The third quarter ended with the Royals still holding on to a slim, 46-43, lead.
"We had to stop [Andujar] some way. He was getting basket after basket," said Hunt.
The game became physical as both teams fought hard on the boards and exchanged buckets. With 4:43 Calhoun would net a trey that would put CTK back up 7 points but with 2:45 left in the game, Andujar again drove hard to the hole and this time fouled out Calhoun, who finished with 18 points and 9 rebounds.
"I had a lot of confidence in my teammates but I was hurt that I got fouled out in a championship game," said Calhoun who had to watch the finale of the game from the bench. "There wasn't a lot of scoring but it was important that we held on to the lead."
6'6" sophomore Jordan Fuchs subbed in for the junior and Andujar immediately went to work on him as well. While Rice was drawing fouls on the Royals, poor free-throw shooting down the stretch still allowed Christ the King to remain ahead, 57-54, with 58.3 seconds left to play. Edwards would draw a foul with 39.7 seconds, hit the first but miss the second after he was delayed due to a cut by his ear. The delay would force Royals head Coach Arbitello to reluctantly opt to burn his last time out as opposed to replacing his start PG in crunch time.
There was 9.3 seconds left in the game as missed free-throws by Ortiz and Curry gave Rice the ball, only down by two points. Andujar, who already had 28 points, would once again try to drive hard to the basket but this time would be rejected with 4.4 seconds as Ortiz unleashed one of his seven blocks on the senior. A last second desperation heave by Tyler Wilson would also come up short, or long as it were, and the Christ the King fans would storm the court in celebration.
After the game, a tearful Sanders said that the loss was less about what the Royals did and more about what the Raiders didn't do. "We just didn't come out ready to play. They came out ready to play. That's why they got the big lead [in the opening quarter]," said Sanders.
The Royals now have the sights set on loftier goals. Edwards says he's looking forward to playing in the Federation States for the first time and especially against Boys & Girls. "I heard they smacked Lincoln [in the PSAL championship]," he said. Coach Arbitello outlined the master plan more succinctly saying, "Brooklyn/Queens, the City and then the State. That's what we're tryin' to do."