One by one, members of the Xavier boys basketball team walked out of the locker room with red eyes and moist cheeks, some with hooded sweatshirts pulled tightly over their heads to shield their anguish. They were greeted with applause for their hard work by friends and family members.
It was of little solace after the gut-wrenching 57-56 defeat to heavily favored Archbishop Stepinac in a classic CHSAA Class A intersectional semifinal Tuesday night at Cardinal Spellman in The Bronx.
Stepinac faces Cardinal Hayes in Friday’s night’s final at Fordham University at 8 p.m. The Cardinals defeated St. Joseph by the Sea in the other semifinal.
Stepinac's Conroy Baltimore had 18 points and 12 rebounds in the Crusaders' CHSAA Class A intersectional semifinal victory over Xavier.
“I’m crushed right now,” said senior Euroy Smith, who led Xavier with 18 points. Eddie Sullivan added 13 and Billy Hunter had 11. “All the seniors were crying, all the juniors were crying, all the guys who were on the bench were crying.”
Xavier led throughout, by as many as 11 points in the third quarter, and nine in the fourth quarter. With 4:11 remaining, the Knights were comfortably ahead, 52-43, after Sullivan, a junior point guard, had scored six points in a 7-1 run.
Stepinac, however, never stopped coming. The Crusaders closed on a furious 13-4 run, finally went ahead on senior forward Conroy Baltimore’s two free throws with 15 seconds to go.
“Every day in practice I work on my free throws,” said Baltimore, who made 12-of-13 and finished with game-highs of 18 points and 12 rebounds. “I knew I was going to make both of them. I was confident.”
The Knights had one more chance, and the ball found its way into the capable and clutch hands of Bobby Bruns, the same Bobby Bruns who had beaten Mount St. Michael with a four-point play and Regis at the buzzer in a double-overtime thriller in the second round of the playoffs.
“I have faith in him,” Smith said. “I’ll give him the last shot any day.”
Bruns didn’t get off a clean shot, rushing it. Out of his hands, it felt long, and it was, way long, the ball caroming off the glass first and then the rim. The horn sounded on Xavier’s Cinderella season. Bruns dove onto the floor, doubled over in disappointment as Stepinac celebrated as the Westchester school’s large contingent rushing the court.
“I know there wasn’t much time left, so when I caught it, I looked right away to shoot it,” he said. “I sort of threw it up. I didn’t get a chance to set and shoot, like I usually do.”
After building a 45-34 lead late in the third quarter, Xavier (16-9) wasn’t able to much of anything on offense that was easy. Stepinac (17-10) began pressing full-court, making life difficult for Sullivan by rotating defenders on him. Smith managed just three points after halftime and Hunter had only two.
“We kept on fighting, playing defense, rebounding, blocking shots, making plays on offense,” Baltimore said. “We did all of that.”
Xavier coach Joe McGrane left with his held high, pleased how his team came together. There was the regular-season upset of Mount, and the shocking win in the quarterfinals over Iona Prep, the defending CHSAA Class A state champions. The Knights dealt with injuries woes at the season’s outset, then took most of the year to find themselves.
“I feel pretty good right now,” he said. “Obviously, I’m upset we lost, but the last three weeks of the year our guys played awesome. As a coach, that’s what you want.”
Said Bruns: “We beat a lot of good teams and got further than anybody thought we would get. I’ll remember that.”