JAMAICA, NY- One of the marquee nights of the year is always the CHSAA Intersectional Semifinals at St. John's University as the best of the best in the Catholic League squared off on Thursday night for the chance to advance to Sunday's title game.
Both matchups were must see as Christ the King squared off with the defending champions in Cardinal Hayes in the opener, while Stepinac took on Archbishop Molloy in the nightcap.
It was two truly fantastic contests with everything on the line. NYCHoops.net was courtside for both, and let's now look at how both played out as we recap the action from Queens.
Christ the King Outruns Cardinal Hayes, 72 - 64
A rematch of a game that saw the Cardinals drain 13 threes to take down Christ the King 84-64 on December 2nd the motivation was there for the Royals not only to get themselves into the CHSAA Intersectional Championship Game, but to right the disappointment of that early season performance.
Early on it was Christ the King who looked like the more complete team as they kept Cardinal Hayes from getting loose for open three's, and with the likes of Tyson Walker '18 and Kofi Cockburn '19 controlling both the inside and outside alike, the Royals jumped out to a lead of as big as 19 in the second quarter.
The Hayes run though came in the third quarter as the deficit was knocked down to as little as 4, but in the end the Royals did just enough to hang on as behind the 21 points of Walker, and 20 from Cockburn, Christ the King is back in the CHSAA Intersectional title game after a 72-64 victory.
If there was anything that Christ the King was coming in on Thursday it was motivated. They remembered the beating they took in early December, with Walker saying it drove him to make sure that didn't happen again.
"That was on my mind a lot because they made like 20 three's last game and blew us out, it was embarrassing," Walker stated.
It was evident from the start that Christ the King's drive, along with their superior size was going to favorably play into their advantage in this one as right from the start Moussa Cisse '21 was able to a pair of putback attempts to finish a Walker miss to get the Royals on the board. Cardinal Hayes was able to start hit from long range with Tyrese Williams '18 and Jontai Williams '18 each knocked down their first made three attempts, but soon after the well went dry.
The Cardinals had an early 6-4 lead off of the pair of made three's but soon after Walker was able to hit on a floater in the lane, and with Quaran McPherson '20 feeling it from deep for the Royals, Christ the King was able to go on a 15-0 run midway through the opening stanza and blow the game open to take a 24-10 lead after one.
In firm control the Royals kept going to McPherson who proved to be tough to contain off the dribble, and with Cockburn near unstoppable in the midrange the lead for Christ the King grew to as much as 31-12 with 6:28 left in the 2nd. It was as close to domination as the Royals could've hoped for early as even though Joe Toussaint '19 was doing all he could pushing the tempo and getting out in the open floor, Christ the King led at the break 41-25.
There was little question that Christ the King were in the driver’s seat heading into halftime, but Royals head coach Joe Arbitello said because of the respect they have for Cardinal Hayes, and their ability to get hot from deep quickly, they weren't counting the Cardinals out at all.
"We knew they were going to make there run and hit some shots," Arbitello said. "They are the returning city champs and like Joe Lods said the other day to you, we were going to have to rip it out of their hands and do whatever it took to get to the state championship."
Expecting the Cardinal Hayes, it came quickly in the third as both Williams' knocked down treys in the opening 3 minutes of the quarter, and before Christ the King could blink the once 19-point lead was down to single digits.
Many in that spot would've been rattled knowing the defending champions were right back in the game, but Walker said he was happy that at least it happened when it did giving the Royals time to respond.
"I'm glad it happened when it did because it gave us time to retaliate," Walker said.
Christ the King did manage to stem the tide as Cockburn was able to get in positions down low against an undersized Hayes team to finish as he had 8 in the third to see his maintain momentum.
The three ball kept being kind to Hayes in the fourth as they were able to eventually trim the Royals lead to as little at 63-59 after a Terry Dawkins '18 three with 2:17 to play, but a dribble drive by Walker while getting fouled pushed the Christ the King lead back up to 7, and then Cockburn would finish inside to reality put the game away with just over a minute to play.
Closing out the game strong from the charity stripe, Christ the King held strong when presented with adversity as the Royals are back in the CHSAA Intersectional Championship Game after defeating Cardinal Hayes and ending their title run, 72-64.
Walker had a team high 21 points to lead the Royals, while Cockburn had 20 points and 19 rebounds to prove his dominance down low for Christ the King.
In the defeat for Cardinal Hayes it was 22 points for Williams to lead all scorers, with Toussaint scoring 12 of his 16 points in the second half for the Royals as well.
The win now moves Christ the King to the CHSAA Intersectional Championship Game on Sunday at Fordham University, and it will be Walker's first time playing in the game as he says he is ready and excited to bring the Royals back to the level of success they always expect to have.
"It's tradition," Walker said. "It's what we got to do."
Stepinac Tops Archbishop Molloy, 88 - 84
The word tossed around a lot prior to this game for the Crusaders was redemption. They felt as if the 70-69 loss they took in last year's CHSAA Intersectional Semifinals was unfair with a foul called on Xavier Wilson '18 with 0.6 seconds left in a tie game. Khalid Moore '18 would hit 1 of 2 FT's to give Molloy the win in that game last season.
It wasn't the ending Stepinac's coaches and players felt was deserved and holding that feeling of defeat close to them all season long they were on a mission to not let that heartbreaking feeling happen to them again.
Both and forth the two teams went throughout most of this game but with Alan Griffin '18 carrying the Crusaders early, and R.J. Davis '20 picking up the slack late, Stepinac was able to hold on and hit massive clutch FT's late to come away with the redemption they desired, defeating Archbishop Molloy to punch their ticket to Sunday's title game, 88-84.
One year ago this matchup provided all the drama that anyone could've hoped for and Stepinac head coach Pat Massaroni said coming in the only difference he felt was the fact they wore different colored jerseys and dressed in different locker rooms this time, everything was set up the same, but Davis said this team was not going to allow that same result to happen again.
"We just wanted to redeem ourselves from last year's loss," Davis said. "We all remembered that feeling in that locker room and it was heartbreaking. It wasn't a feeling we wanted here again."
That game a year ago was a major talking point between players and coaches alike for Stepinac, but they to a man also knew that this was a new year and they needed to focus on the task at hand, getting one more win to advance to the school's first CHSAA Intersectional title game since 1960.
Molloy in the early going did a good job of utilizing their size inside with big 7'2" center Moses Brown '18 getting touch after touch inside as he had three two handed slams in the opening quarter to give the Stanners an early lead.
Davis though was proving to be crafty in getting to the rim around the pressure Stanners defense as his play off the dribble tied the game up at 16.
If it was a balanced effort by everyone for Stepinac in the opening stanza the second was all about Alan Griffin as the wing poured in 16 points in the quarter to help put the Crusaders ahead, but a late three by Cole Anthony '19 put Molloy in front by 5. It looked as if the Stanners would take that advantage into the half but Griffin, keeping them in the game, hit an off balance three just before the halftime buzzer made it just a 38-36 Molloy lead at the break.
Feeling as if his team had played well, Massaroni wasn't disappointed at all with where his Crusader team stood at the half, but he also knew that Griffin's shot was something that could really lift them as they came back from the locker room for the second half.
"Everyone was fired up from the coaches, the players, the managers, the fans," Massaroni said about what Griffin's shot did for the team heading into halftime. "We felt like we played a good first half but that was huge for us to hit that shot at the buzzer and take momentum going into halftime."
To their credit Molloy maintained their poise as well as coming out of the break they kept the lead as Moore was able to finish with authority up the court after a steal by Anthony. Griffin though would keep sending in big shot after big shot as he would tie the game at 59 after a three ball went in from well beyond the NBA three-point line, and when Davis went to the line and connected on a pair of FT's, Stepinac had the lead back at 61-59.
With Griffin carrying the Crusaders early and keeping them in the game for as long as he could, it was Davis in the 4th who begin to instill his will on the game. Anthony was able to score in buckets for Molloy, but the Stanners couldn't contain Davis who had 14 points in the final quarter of play. He was scoring on reverses around Brown and Moore inside, while also pulling up off the dribble and connecting over Anthony in the midrange.
Leading the offense like a veteran beyond his years, Davis was able to come up biggest when his team needed him most, and after Brown converted on a putback while getting fouled to make it an 82-81 game, it was Davis with 21.1 seconds left who was fouled. He went to the FT line with his team up by just 1 to shoot the biggest free throws of his life. He would calmly sink both to put Stepinac up 84-81, and then after a miss by Moore from the right wing that would've tied up the game, there was Davis again for the rebound.
Immediately fouled Davis would sink more FT's, going 6-6 from the charity stripe in the closing 21.1 seconds of the game, including the final two after an Anthony three ball off glass that sent the game from 86-84 to 88-84 with just under 1 second to play. It sealed the deal for Stepinac who would finally get to celebrate as after last season's heartbreak it was finally jubilation as the Crusaders would hold on for the 88-84 victory.
Getting 33 points from Davis, and 31 points from Griffin the Crusaders got quite possibly the best game of the year in their two biggest stars. It was a monumental effort from the dynamic duo, with Davis stepping up in the clutch and knocking down the FT's needed to win.
For some the moment may have been too large, but for Davis it's been a moment he says he has been waiting for.
"I practice free throws every day so for me it's just easy, and with the game on the line I was ready to step up and do what I needed to do," Davis explained.
For Davis's extraodinary efforts on Thursday, the young point guard picked up an offer from St. John's
His FT's ended Molloy's hopes at a dream season as Moore finished out his high school career with a season high 27 points, Anthony would add 26 points and 10 rebounds, while Brown had 23 points and 11 rebounds in what would be the last game the trio will play in together.
After last season's utter heartbreak Massaroni said his team finally got the redemption they had been craving since last year, now looking forward to getting to play Sunday's CHSAA Intersectional Championship Game. He says he knows it will be tough going up against a formidable foe like Christ the King, and while he will enjoy this win for tonight, it's back to work on Friday to figure out how to get the job done.
"This is huge, and I am going to enjoy it tonight, but we will come back tomorrow and try and figure out how to guard two 7 footers," Massaroni said with a laugh as he walked away to celebrate a major semifinal victory with his team.