Tim Philp can remember back long before he became the coach at Stepinac and even before he played there, too. He’s been watching the CHSAA tournament that long, back when the league was stocked with the country’s best teams and best players every year.
“It’s definitely something special. Growing up — even when I was in elementary school and even when I was at Stepinac — I always remember going to the final four,” he said. “I remember guys like Felipe Lopez, Shammgod Wells and Kareem Reid. Those were some of the best basketball players in the country. When I was growing up, those were the teams that were at this point. Now we’re there.”
The Crusaders advanced to the CHSAA semifinals, which will be held tonight at Fordham University. It is just their second year since moving to the AA division, but not the program’s first final four at the league’s top level. Stepinac last advanced this far in 1985-86. Then-senior Marty Conlon, who went on to help Providence to the Final Four and played 10 seasons in the NBA, led the Crusaders in a close loss to Kenny Anderson and Archbishop Molloy when Anderson was arguably the best sophomore in the country.
Although Stepinac may not have a future pro on this roster, it earned this trip to the semis nonetheless. The Crusaders went 0-4 against the league’s top three teams (Christ the King, Cardinal Hayes and Bishop Loughlin), but 9-1 against the rest of the Top 10 (St. Ray’s, Iona Prep, Fordham Prep, Molloy, Holy Cross and Xaverian).
It was an improvement over Stepinac’s AA debut and fulfilled any sort of preseason expectation.
“If you said before the season that we’d be in the final four, I would’ve signed up for that,” Philp said.
The Crusaders enter tonight game as a decided underdog. They lost 83-70 at home to Loughlin on Jan. 27. They cut a double-digit lead to four midway through the fourth quarter but couldn’t withstand the Brooklyn power with its superior length and quickness.
Although Stepinac is pleased to reach the semifinals and have another chance again the league’s best, Philp doesn’t believe his team will arrive satisfied with what it has already accomplished.
“We talked about that. They’re by no means a cocky group at all, they’re confident,” he said. “They definitely believe in how they play and they believe they can win. They 100 percent believe that if they play the way they have all year, we will compete.”
Here’s a more in-depth look at tonight’s game:
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CHSAA AA Intersectional Semifinals
Bishop Loughlin (19-6) vs. Stepinac (20-7)
When: Tonight, 6 p.m.
Where: Fordham University’s Rose Hill Gym
Key players: Bishop Loughlin — Mike Williams (6-1), Jr., G; Khadeen Carrington (6-3), Jr., G/F; Javian Delacruz (6-4), Jr., F; Jordan Nanton (6-0), Sr., G; Darius James (6-0), Jr., G. Stepinac — Josh James (6-1), Sr., G; Naim Thomas (5-11), Jr., G; Andrew Murray (6-3), Sr., F; James Decker (6-1), Sr., F; Walter King (6-0), Jr., G (pictured at top).
Notes: James scored his 1,000 point on Sunday to lead the Crusaders over the New York Archdiocesan champ, St. Ray’s, for the second time this season. … James, a Monmouth-bound guard, leads Stepinac in scoring at 18 PPG. Thomas (pictured right) is second at 15 PPG. … James, Carrington and Williams were all first-team all-league players. … Carrington and Williams are among the top recruits in the state. According to ZagsBlog.com, Carrington has offers from St. John’s, UConn, SMU, Florida State, Iowa State, Pitt and Providence, among others. Williams has received offers from Rutgers, Drexel, Quinnipiac and Manhattan. … Delacruz has received an offer from Manhattan.
Outlook: Loughlin burned Stepinac in their first meeting in transition and on the offensive glass. The Crusaders tried to play their typical fast pace, but will attempt to slow the game down more in the rematch by retreating on defense. Carrington and Williams are elite finishers, while Delacruz is probably the team’s best 3-point shooters. Loughlin also has superior size and depth. A key will be James and Thomas staying on the floor by avoiding foul trouble, which is something that has plagued James at times this season. Stepinac will also have to shoot well to win because better transition defense alone won’t keep Loughlin from pushing the ball up court.
Up next: The winner plays either Christ the King or Cardinal Hayes at 3 on Sunday at Fordham for the city and state championship. (CTK and Hayes play tonight at 8 at Fordham.)