All that was missing was an overtime and a buzzer beater.
The #1 L.I. Lutheran Crusaders and #2 St. Mary's Gaels both had this one marked on their calendars, and for 32 minutes, the clash of the titans lived up to the hype and maintained the vibe of early March.
"Both teams really played a great game", said St. Mary's Head Coach Bill Harkins. "We never quit."
The Gaels' refusal to quit in a Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed slugfest meant that they were the last men standing, with a hard-fought 57-55 victory over LuHi in a packed house on the road. "Defensively, I think we played very well", Coach Harkins continued. "We played defense for 25-30 seconds (per possession), it was exhausting."
The grind out game tipped in LuHi's favor to start, as senior trio Achraf Yacoubou, Shaun Lawton and Mike Florin pushed the Crusaders out to an 11-5 lead. The Crusaders' mission went flat shortly after though, as the Gaels shook off the dust mid-way through the first quarter. Chavaughn Lewis, Charles McCann and Dante Agnew spearheaded a 16-2 run that wreaked havoc on LuHi well into the second quarter, and the Gaels eventually took a 10 point lead, the largest of the game. Conversely, the roll call for LuHi's offense produced silence in the second period outside of Yacoubou. The Villanova commit stopped the hemorrhaging for LuHi, but he was the lone Crusader to score from the field for a good 12 minutes. The Gaels' help defense made things all the more difficult for LuHi, but as the half came to a close, more Crusaders began to show face. Anthony Sbarro, Lawton and Florin provided timely offense near second quarter's end, with the latter banking in a trey with time winding down to close the gap to three, 30-27. LuHi weren't going to just vanish on a big stage.
"At halftime, we knew that (LuHi) getting the ball on the backboard was a problem for us", Coach Harkins said. "They would play ping pong with it up there, we were the much smaller team. If we didn't let the ball get up there, we could survive. It's about rebounding the ball and playing defense."
After a surprisingly quiet first half, LuHi big man Jordan Allen began to find his way into the scoring column, but the workhorse interior defense of McCann and Lewis equalized Allen's inside presence. It also helps when you can minimize the damage that a D-1 player (Yacoubou) can do. Harkins divulged the remainder of the Gaels plan of attack: "Our plan was to not let (Yacoubou) control the game. He's a great player, so we didn't want him involved in every play. We also tried to keep the ball out of the middle, and we were pretty successful with that as well."
Neither team would lead by more than 5 points throughout the entire second half. Mary's plans to jam up the paint put Allen on the line, but the Hofstra-bound senior struggled from the stripe. Mary's managed to hold serve, but they weren't exactly running up the score either. Lewis scored 7 of the Gaels 9 points in the third quarter, but they still held a 39-38 lead going into the fourth quarter.
After an intense flurry of back and forth, the Gaels finally seemed to be pulling away. Justin Bailey, Khalif Chapman, Lewis and Agnew combined to go 7-8 from the stripe with time running down, and with Agnew controlling the offense and using his ball IQ in the second half, the game looked to be coming to a close. But even Apollo Creed fought to the end. St. Mary's poise at the line was matched by LuHi's propensity for big shots, as Brandon Alford and Florin nailed crucial treys with 22 and 8 seconds left to play, respectively. Both shots brought the game to a very winnable state for the Crusaders, but with 0.3 on the clock and the Gaels up two and defending the inbound play, there's only one man you can call on.
"We put Charles under the hoop", said Harkins. "And when he goes for a ball, he usually comes out with it."
"There was 0.3 (seconds) left, so we knew it would be a lob play", said McCann, who notched a double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds. "They couldn't get a shot off, so it was just a matter of tipping it so they couldn't touch it."
The inbound pass nearly went into an eagerly waiting Allen under the hoop, but the oft unheralded and hard-nosed McCann threw the knock out blow by batting it away in the nick of time. The swat also likely sealed a vertical move to the #1 spot for the undefeated Gaels, but for all the fanfare surrounding the game, McCann doesn't care much about hoopla, for this game or otherwise.
"(We didn't want to) fall into the hype", McCann said. "We just wanted to be physical, no matter what."
Lewis also secured a double-double with 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 steals. Agnew added 8 points and 5 assists. Yacoubou's 18 points and Florin's 11 led LuHi.