NEW YORK — One possession into the third quarter, Stepinac faced a growing deficit that was bordering on insurmountable. The Crusaders, in the program's biggest game in 17 years, were down 13 points and fading.
At halftime, coach Tim Philp had stated the obvious: We need to believe. Stepinac had rallied from a double-digit deficit in the second half before, as recently as Tuesday, as a matter of fact. So why not do it again?
"We knew we had been down in games before," senior Kadeem Francis said. "We came back to win last game, so we knew we could come back in this game, too. We just never stopped fighting."
By the end of the third quarter, the Crusaders had erased every point and began building a lead of their own. They never relented during a memorable second-half performance that staved off Cardinal Hayes 61-54 to win the CHSAA "A" intersectional championship game Friday night at Fordham University — the first championship for the program since 1993.
After a tough first half against Hayes' long front line, junior Conroy Baltimore proved the paint at Rose Hill Gym was his to roam. The 6-foot-5 force produced 15 points, 12 rebounds and eight blocked shots, including five during a game-changing third quarter.
The Crusaders (18-10) advanced to the Catholic schools state tournament where they will meet either Nichols of Buffalo or St. Mary's of Long Island next weekend for a spot in the Federation tournament later this month.
"We just stepped up our game physically," Baltimore said of Stepinac's 40-22 second-half edge. "In the first half they were beating us to offensive and defensive rebounds. We changed that in the second half and that was a big difference."
Junior guard James Chillemi led Stepinac with 16 points. He made 5 of 6 free throws in the final minute.