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Stepinac coach Tim Philp saw New Rochelle will its way to victory against St. Mary’s two night earlier and nearly do it against Iona Prep just before Christmas. But when the Huguenots cut into his Crusaders’ nine-point lead in the fourth quarter, he knew his guys would respond, and they did.
Naim Thomas and Andrew Murray made back-to-back baskets to give Stepinac a five-point lead and eventually a 60-50 victory in Sunday's Slam Dunk Tournament final at the Westchester County Center.
“It’s scary how tough they are and how they come at you,” Philp said of New Rochelle. “They’re tenacious, but I kept telling our guys to take care of the ball, and I think that’s what we did to win the game.”
Stepinac took care of the ball for the second consecutive game and forced more turnovers than it committed. Point guard Josh James was his usual steady self and finished with 12 points, eight assists, five rebounds and four steals.
“Josh is a stat-stuffer,” Thomas said. “He is our leader and just fills up a stat sheet in any way possible for us.”
Thomas did his part by filling up the basket with a game-high 23 points, including 17 by halftime. Stepinac needed all of those points early as New Rochelle went shot-for-shot through the first half. Boz Bernstein hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give Stepinac a 31-29 lead at the break.
“I was just feeling it early," Thomas said. "I worked out real hard yesterday and was thinking about this game all night. I just came in really focused.”
Stepinac built a nine-point lead after three quarters with great defense against New Rochelle star Joe Clarke. Murray, the lone forward in Stepinac’s offense, was especially impressive.
“I usually get subbed out on offensive possessions and brought in for defensive possessions,” Murray said. “So that’s what I focus on and I just did what I could down low for us. (New Rochelle) was tough.”
Clarke ended up with 22 points and 14 rebounds, but Murray took two charges from the powerful forward and harassed New Rochelle all night. He finished with 10 points and eight rebounds.
“Our guys have a ton of heart,” Philp said. “Being outsized is nothing new for Andrew, and James (Decker), and those guys. We see it every day in our league. They just have heart.”
New Rochelle cut into the lead by dominating on the glass with Clarke and Khalil Edney (9 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists) and pressuring in the half court. The Huguenots cut the deficit to one point on a Benny Bracey steal and layup, before Stepinac closed the game on a 10-1 run.
“They are a really tough evenly matched team, but we’re tough, too,” James said. “We had a lot of fun out there and we weren’t going to give in.”
Email John Malone at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @MSGV_Malone