It’s a tough feeling for a team to watch an opponent celebrate a championship.
Such was the case for the Xaverian H.S., Bay Ridge, varsity basketball team last year, as it fell in the CHSAA ‘AA’ division city championship to Christ the King R.H.S., Middle Village.
So this year, Xaverian set out from the start to not have to experience that feeling again.
In the 89th annual ‘AA’ city championship game, played March 13 at the historic Rose Hill Gymnasium on the campus of Fordham University, the Bronx, the Clippers earned an exciting 59-56 victory over Bishop Loughlin M.H.S., Fort Greene.
The win marks the first city title for Xaverian since 2005 and the second overall in the school’s history.
‘Heart of a Champion’
“I’m along for the ride with this team,” said Xaverian’s head coach Jack Alesi. “You can talk about Xs and Os and game plans, but it’s about heart. This team here has the heart of a champion.”
From last year’s squad, the team lost three key players, all of whom are currently playing basketball in college: Najee Larcher (University of New Haven, West Haven, Conn.), Sayon Charles (Dominican College, Orangetown, N.Y.) and Doyin Isaac (Baruch College, Manhattan). So from the start, Xaverian set out to redefine itself without these key contributors.
After a 9-7 regular season – including three losses to Bishop Loughlin – the Clippers were not exactly expected to turn many heads throughout the diocesan and city playoffs. The team was ousted in the diocesan semifinals by Archbishop Molloy H.S., Briarwood, which eventually fell to diocesan champion Bishop Loughlin.
Xaverian entered the city playoffs as a No. 4 seed, but wins over the Mount St. Michael Academy, the Bronx; Cardinal Hayes H.S., the Bronx; and Archbishop Molloy landed the Clippers in the championship game for the second straight season.
“Coach (Alesi) said we’re one of the hardest working teams he’s ever coached at Xaverian, and I totally agree with him,” said junior guard Zack Bruno. “A lot of people didn’t believe in us, but I definitely believed in us from the start of the season.”
The game began with Xaverian jumping out with the momentum en route to a seven-point lead after the first quarter. The Clippers increased their lead to 12 early in the second, as a steal and one-handed dunk by senior forward Brandon Leftwich forced Lions head coach Edwin Gonzalez to call a timeout.
Lions Led Into Halftime
Bishop Loughlin responded immediately by going on a 16-0 run, which included six points by sophomore guard Markquis Nowell, to give the Lions a two-point lead heading into halftime.
The third quarter started with Bishop Loughlin keeping up the intensity and opening an 11-point lead. After Alesi called a timeout, the Clippers were able to close the gap to seven points heading into the final quarter.
A quick 6-0 Xaverian run to start the fourth made it a one-point game, and moments later, Bruno drilled a corner three-pointer to give Xaverian the lead with just over five minutes remaining.
From there, Bishop Loughlin got within two points on five separate occasions but could never deliver the tying punch. When Bruno took a charge from Lions junior guard Tyrese Gaffney in the closing seconds, the city title was sealed for the Clippers.
“Last year we lost in the championship, so we knew what we had to do this year in the championship game to overcome the deficit,” said senior forward Nyonty Wisseh. “In practice and in games, we’ve stayed together. They (the Lions) made their run, but we made our run to the win.”
Wisseh earned MVP honors after recording a double-double with 18 pts. and 10 rebounds. Bruno finished the game with 18 pts. and three rebounds, and Leftwich added 13 pts., six rebounds and three assists.
Wisseh, Bruno and Leftwich combined for 19 of the team’s 22 points in the fourth quarter. After shooting just under 40 percent collectively from the field in the first half, the Clippers improved to nearly 60 percent shooting in the second half.
For Bishop Loughlin, Nowell had 17 pts., four assists and four steals, and junior guard Keith Williams tallied 15 pts. and five rebounds.
“We knew coming into this game they (the Lions) were a very young team,” Leftwich said. “We knew we had the experience over them. Even when we went down, we weren’t stressed about it. We just needed to get the game into the fourth quarter and win this game, which is exactly what we did. I will cherish this for the rest of my life.”
“Last year, I thought the ride was tremendous, but this year is even better,” Alesi said. “It doesn’t get any better than this!”
But there’s actually a chance it could get even better for Xaverian, which now moves on to the state Federation Tournament of Champions, held March 18-20 at the Times Union Center in Albany, N.Y.
Contact Jim Mancari via email at email@example.com.