These last two games were the latter. Stepinac won its second Slam Dunk in three years because its defensive pressure created havoc its opponents couldn’t handle. The Crusaders forced 54 turnovers. In fact, the backcourt’s speed and quickness created so many problems for Mahopac and New Rochelle that those teams outrebounded Stepinac by a combined 19 rebounds and still attempted 21 fewer field goals. That’s almost impossible.
New Rochelle ramped up its pressure in the fourth quarter, as it had in comebacks against Iona Prep and St. Mary’s in the last two games. Stepinac didn’t fold. Instead, it turned the ball over to Josh James, who earned his MVP hardware as much for what he didn’t do – panic – as for what he did.
WHITE PLAINS Like it had in consecutive fourth quarter comebacks, New Rochelle stepped forward with pressure Sunday night at the Slam Dunk. The Huguenots came forward in a wave of arms and legs, bringing a defense designed to squeeze Stepinac into submission. Instead, the Crusaders handed the ball to perhaps the county’s surest hands on the floor of Westchester’s basketball mecca.
Stepinac was confronted with a few skittish moments, but senior Josh James helped secure a 60-50 victory against New Rochelle in the championship at the County Center. His MVP effort included 12 points, five rebounds, seven assists and four steals.
It also proved just as noteworthy for what he avoided: Turnovers.
“I feel like every game the fourth quarter is my time,” said the Monmouth-bound guard. “As a leader, you want to take over and be in control at that point and that’s what I did tonight.”
New Rochelle trimmed Stepinac’s lead to as little as a point on senior Benny Bracey’s basket with a just over two minutes remaining. The Crusaders (9-1) had gone cold in the fourth quarter until senior Andrew Murray (No. 22, pictured right) sent a charge through his team’s bench.
He drove baseline for a layup as the shot clock ticked down to give Stepinac a 54-49 lead.
“That was definitely it,” said Murray, who finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds. “I knew that would bring my team up and help us push through to get the win.”
The basket dropped with 1:18 left and highlighted a 10-1 closing surge.
Stepinac received an early offensive boost from junior Naim Thomas (pictured, at top), who scored 17 of his game-high 23 points in the first half. He also dished to Boz Bernstein for a 3-pointer at the buzzer that lifted the Crusaders to a 31-29 halftime lead. They never trailed again.
“I was focused – real focused,” said Thomas, who shot 8 for 14 and hit three 3’s. “I came into this game knowing I had to be a slasher and a scorer.”
Senior Joe Clarke fouled out in the final minute but not before scoring 22 points and grabbing a game-high 14 rebounds for New Rochelle (2-5). His team actually finished with a 35-27 edge on the glass but succumbed to Stepinac’s quickness, which forced 26 turnovers.
The Crusaders caused 54 turnovers in two games to win the Slam Dunk for the second time in three years.
Stepinac will host league favorite Cardinal Hayes in a Friday night triple header looking to avenge its only loss. It is already one win shy of last season’s total.
“Last year was the backbone to build our team up for this year,” Murray said. “We’re so happy that we’re doing this going into the New Year. We just have to keep it up and keep practicing hard.”
Mahopac 66, St. Mary’s of Manhasset 59
Disappointed and a little embarrassed after Friday night’s loss to Stepinac, Mahopac returned to the County Center Sunday to face arguably to most talented team on its schedule. Rather than wait another game to hit the reset button after a slow start, the Indians started their second half push a game early.
Brendan Hynes, Ryan Simone and Mike Simone all scored in double figures as Mahopac upset Long Island power St. Mary’s of Manhasset 66-59 in Sunday’s boys consolation game at the Slam Dunk. The Indians shot 51.2 percent from the field and protected the ball better, committing 13 fewer turnovers than they did Friday.
“The three teams we lost to were pretty good teams and we knew we had another good opponent today,” said Hynes, a senior guard, who had 19 points, five rebounds and four assists. “People had started to doubt us with our record. We just wanted to come here and prove we were a good basketball team.”
Mahopac (3-3) actually held the edge over St. Mary’s from the second quarter on, opening up a 13-point lead. It was quickly paired down to two with over six minutes remaining, but the Indians didn’t fold. Dan Tully hit a key 3-pointer during a strong closing stretch.
Ryan Simone finished with 18 points and eight rebounds. His brother, Mike, added 14 points and eight rebounds. Anthony Lenahan had eight assists.
“I think they were a little disappointed in their effort the other night,” Mahopac coach Kevin Downes said. “I thought we had opportunities and chances the other night and it got away from us. We didn’t really have any rhythm. The kids took it upon themselves to say, hey, we’re better than we played and they came out and showed that.”
St. Mary’s 6-foot-10 center Jessie Govan led all players with 19 points and 16 rebounds. Freshman guard Devonte Green had 17 points, 12 rebounds and four assists, but he shot 5 for 23.