BROOKLYN, NY - The Benjamin Cardozo head basketball coach Ron Naclerio was too nervous to watch sophomore Rashond Salnave take his two free throws with Cardozo trailing Thomas Jefferson 54-53 with 2.5 seconds left in the game.
Salnave had just tried to drive down the middle of the paint with his team down by a point looking to score to put his team on top. He was a little bit out of control, but he drew just enough contact to make the official blow the whistle.
So instead of watching what his player shoot the free throws, Naclerio turned his head away purposely and decided to wait for the crowd's reaction. Naclerio heard what he wanted, which was a cheer from behind the Cardozo bench. At that moment he knew the game was tied. Of course he wouldn't watch the second one. Even if you weren't superstitious, there was no way anybody would look at the next free throw. Not looking worked the first time. And it worked the second time too.
Salnave made the next one and gave Cardozo the last and final lead. After a couple of timeouts and desperation heave from half-court, Cardozo was finally able to run out onto the Barclay Center floor as PSAL city champions, winning 55-54. It was the end of an unlikely run through the play-offs. Cardozo had to win all of its playoff games against Brooklyn teams and capped everything off at the home of the Brooklyn Nets.
The talented sophomore guard had just given Naclerio the first Cardozo championship in 15 years. Naclerio couldn't hold back the tears after the game. He walked across the floor immediately after the game with tears flowing from his eyes, hugging members of his coaching staff and some of his players. In fact there were a couple other sets of eyes that were also moist on that Cardozo side, including Salnave.
Salnave admitted he was nervous when he was at the line knowing that the city title was on the line. But the sophomore to be the definition of calm as he sank both free throws.
"I was nervous too, but I've been in that situation before but it's just that the situation before wasn't as big as this one," Salnave said at the postgame press conference. "I knew what I had to do and my teammates, they pushed me through it too"
He was asked how he felt and what he was thinking as he was going to the line.
"It felt like a dream on the free throw line. It felt like I was playing [Madden] 2K [Video Game] honestly. I thought I was gonna miss. After the first shot went in I was more than confident"
The game was exciting throughout the entire 32 minutes. Cardozo came out and played a strong first half, holding Jefferson to only 3 points in the second quarter. Neither team shot the ball well. Jefferson shot a dismal 32% for the game and only 7 for 17 from three-point range, one of the main weapons in their arsenal.
Cardozo wasn't much better, but they ended up shooting 39% for the game. That was helped out by high scorer Francisco Williams, who scored 21 points while making 9 of 11 shots. All of the made baskets were lay-ups and dunks. Williams also had 6 rebounds. Williams says he plays for his family. His father passed away when he was only two years old, but he always acknowledges his father by writing Rest in Peace on his sneakers. His mother is recovering from a stroke is and currently undergoing therapy. With that weighing on his mind, he was able to put together a tremendous effort.
Williams was a major force for Cardozo. He was always on the finishing end of nice ball movement from his teammates. They broke the pressure that Jefferson was giving on the court by attacking and usually making a quick pass to Williams under the basket who was there ready to make the catch.
Thomas Jefferson was a tough team in the third quarter. They started to gain momentum and started to play with a lot of energy. They started the second half down 25-18 and made a big run in the third, outscoring Cardozo 19-10 and taking a lead after steal and lay-up by senior guard Patrick Brown.
Sensational sophomore guard Shamorie Ponds made a three with 3:05 left to put Jefferson up 50-45. Ponds was Jefferson's high scorer with 16 points and almost helped his team pull it out. Ponds is going to make some noise in the city over the next couple of years. He made a lot of noise knocking down 3 out of 5 shots from behind the arc. A couple of minutes later Ponds found Brown for a lay-up.
Salnave is the other sophomore who also looks like he will make a lot of noise the next couple of years, but he is the one with the city title. Salnave made a jumper on Cardozo's next possession to cut their deficit to 54-51 with 1:23 left. A Jefferson turnover led to a dunk by Williams to make it 54-53 to set the stage for Salnave.
Naclerio wasn't planning to win the city title. He was almost just content to get to the championship game. Lincoln was so good this year everybody was supposed to be playing for second place. But then Jefferson started making three pointers from New Jersey and slayed the big bad Lincoln dragon. So things in Naclerio's mind changed and he started thinking slightly different.
"The way I take it, I was resigned to the fact that we made a good run… But it can't be, I can't get to the Barclays and lose to Jefferson" Naclerio said.
Well he didn't. Cardozo didn't lose to Jefferson and instead are now the first non-Brooklyn school since John F. Kennedy to win the city title. Naclerio made sure that it was known how the Judges had to run through the Brooklyn gamut to become champions. It makes it all that more impressive, as if it wasn't hard enough to win a city title in the first place.