Stepinac will play league rival Cardinal Hayes at 8 p.m. tonight for the CHSAA’s “A” championship. They will meet at Fordham University after the “B” final between two other local schools, Salesian and Blessed Sacrament, which tips at 6.
Salesian enters the B final as the favorite. It defeated Blessed Sacrament twice: 90-79 on Jan. 12 at Sacred Heart (BOX SCORE) and 80-67 on Feb. 9 at Salesian (BOX SCORE). Both stars lit it up. Salesian guard Kevin Punter combined for 54 points in the two games, while Blessed Sacrament big man David Samuels hit for 52. Despite the presence of Samuels, Salesian (19-5) — a proven team with better balance — holds the edge over Blessed Sacrament (13-12), which had an inconsistent season. The Eagles owned the “B” division and played Mount, St. Francis Prep and Xavier all within six points. They even beat a solid “A” team in Regis by two.
Anyway, let’s get to the main event…
CHSAA “A” INTERSECTIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP — Stepinac (17-10) vs. Cardinal Hayes (20-7)
HEAD 2 HEAD: Stepinac beat Hayes twice, 68-58 at home on Jan. 29 (BOX SCORE) behind four double-figure scorers that included 12 points from big man Conroy Baltimore, as well as 69-67 on Feb. 12 (BOX SCORE) at Hayes, a game the Cardinals trailed by as many as 12 before rallying late behind 27 points from star guard Nay-Quan Bloomer. Stepinac fared much, much better at home against the 6-foot-1 senior, who scored just four points in the first meeting.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Hayes beat Fordham in the second round 59-56 in OT. It needed a running 3-pointer by Davon Sylvester that he banked in at the buzzer just to send the game into OT. The Cardinals went on to top Bishop Ford 67-57 in the quarters and St. Joe’s by the Sea, which had upset Mount, 54-32 in the semis. Stepinac defeated Monsignor Farrell 67-55 in the second round, followed by a 57-52 victory over Monsignor Scanlan in the quarters. The Crusaders then rallied from 11 points down in the second half to stun Iona Prep-killer Xavier 57-56 in the semis. Baltimore hit two free throws with 20.6 seconds to play to provide the tying and winning points.
WHAT’S NEXT?: The winner advances to the Catholic schools state tournament. It will meet either the Long Island champ (St. Mary’s) or the Buffalo champ next week on a day to be determined.
COACHES: Stepinac — Tim Philp, 10th year. Cardinal Hayes — Joe Lods, 2nd year.
KEY PLAYERS: Stepinac — Conroy Baltimore (6-5), Jr., F, 13.0 PPG; Richie Whitten (5-10), Sr., G, 10.0 PPG; James Chillemi (5-11), Jr., G, 8.0 PPG; Kadeem Francis (6-0), Sr., G/F, 8.0 PPG; Julian Wright (6-1), Jr., G, 8.0 PPG; Thomas Decker (6-0), Sr., G, 6.0 PPG. Cardinal Hayes —Nay-Quan Bloomer (6-1), Sr., G, 17.0 PPG; Gabriel Carrion (6-2), Sr., G, 10.0 PPG; Davon Sylvester (6-2), Jr., G, 9.6 PPG; Bryant McAdoo (6-5), Sr., F, 8.7 PPG; Fadil Yacoubou (6-2), So., F, 8.0 PPG; Aamdou Sidibe (6-7), So., C, 7.7 PPG.
BREAKDOWN: Stepinac — This is the Crusaders first championship game since 1993, also the last year they won it all. They arrive the winner of six straight and 9 off 11, but more importantly on a prolonged streak of dominance over their Bronx rival. Stepinac has won its last five meetings with Hayes, and has posted a 5-1 record vs. the Cardinals since 2007, when Hayes last won the “A” championship. This Stepinac team is defensive-oriented, led by the big man Baltimore, one of the top defensive players in the county and in the CHSAA’s “A” division. Baltimore picked up two fouls early against both McClancy and Xavier. He had a minor impact against McClancy, but returned from the bench in a big way against Xavier, burying 6 of 6 free throws in the fourth quarter of what was a dramatic comeback (GAME STORY). Around Baltimore, the Crusaders employ a group of balanced role players. Any of the five listed above can emerge to lead the team in scoring on any given night. Whitten and Chillemi (right) combined for 36 points in the quarters, while Francis chipped in 14 in the semis. Of course, Stepinac’s downfall at times has been its lack of a true point guard. Hayes’ near-comeback in the second meeting was spurred by second-half defensive pressure. “We panicked a little bit,” Philp said, “but we pulled it out.”
Cardinal Hayes — The Cardinals’ headliner used to be New York City coaching legend Tom Murray, a Hall-of-Famer who won 586 games over the course of 40 years. Lods, a former Hofstra assistant, worked under Murray at Hayes for three seasons before being named the heir apparent. He inherited a team that failed to win a playoff game but returned for this season fairly stacked. The leader is Bloomer, a dynamic guard who can score from the outside or by attacking the basket. “He’s one of the better guards in the league,” Philp said. Bloomer’s joined in the backcourt by big guards, Carrion and Sylvester. Hayes has size up front, too, with McAdoo and the emerging sophomores, Yacoubou and Sidibe, but despite a clear advantage in that category Stepinac has been fine withstanding it. “That big kid Baltimore neutralizes my big kids,” Lods told the New York Post.
PREDICTION: Stepinac 66, Cardinal Hayes 60. Although Hayes has the better record and has played well of late, the Crusaders swept the season series and enjoyed the better season overall. Hayes lost just seven games but six came against the top three teams in its division: Iona Prep, Mount and Stepinac. Unless Baltimore falls into more early foul trouble and the guards protect the ball, the Crusaders are in good position to grab their first championship in 17 years.
One thing’s certain, there will be no surprises.
“I told our guys, there’s not too much scouting and overcoaching to do here,” Philp said. “You played them twice. You know their personnel. They know your personnel. And we’ll do what we do and they’ll do what they do. It’s all about who does it better.”