Jalen Duren (above) had 20 points and 16 rebounds and Roman Catholic are back in the PCL championship game after beating top-seeded Archbishop Wood on Weds. (Photo: Gavin Bethell/CoBL)
Mitchell Gladstone (@mpgladstone13)
Look at the faces of Roman Catholic standouts Jalen Duren and Justice Williams. You can see their calmness and feel their poise — almost as if they’ve been here before.
For one, the Cahillites’ sophomores aren’t your typical second-year players. Duren is the No. 2 player in his class, per 247Sports, and Williams rounds out the top 25.
But they were also here a year ago, and that experience proved vital Wednesday night.
Duren and Williams combined for 43 points to lead No. 5 seed Roman Catholic to an 83-73 win against top-seeded Archbishop Wood in the first of two PCL semifinals at The Palestra. The Cahillites took control early with a 17-4 lead in the opening minutes — featuring nine points from Williams — and led by as many as 20.
“It’s been a journey for us, and that’s why I’m so proud of these guys,” coach Matt Griffin said. “Everybody forgets [Duren and Williams] are 16 years old. … When you lose a Seth Lundy, Hakim Hart and Louie Wild, not only do you lose points and rebounds, you lose senior leadership.”
As much as Williams did to assert himself with points, Duren got going with seemingly everything but. After logging five boards in the first quarter, Duren added five more before intermission to go along with a dime and a trio of blocks.
And Duren, who sits behind just Emoni Bates — potentially the most heralded recruit since LeBron James — in the Class of 2022 rankings, was just getting going on his way to another easy double-double. He finished the night with 20 points, 16 rebounds and five blocks.
Roman's Jalen Duren (right) celebrates with teammate Lynn Greer III during the Cahillites' win over Archbishop Wood on Wednesday night. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Yet Duren and Williams were far from the only youngsters to play a vital role.
Sophomore Christian Kirkland rounded out Roman’s starting five, and 15-year-old freshman Xzayvier Brown knocked down all three shots he took on the night and hit all four of his free throws in the fourth quarter.
“He’s small, he doesn’t weigh a lot, but he plays his heart out,” Duren said of Brown. “He’s really grown throughout the year and he’s filled some big shoes. … Every night he just gets better. He comes to work, he works hard at practice, and we tell him all the time that we’re not going to treat him like he’s 13, 14, 15 years old.”
When it looked like Roman might just run away with things early, the Vikings started to find their footing. Rahsool Diggins canned a long triple late in the second quarter, pulling Wood within a half-dozen at 33-27, and he then capitalized on a Lynn Greer III turnover in the final second of the opening half to make it a 36-26 game at intermission.
But Diggins wasn’t going to let the Vikings go quietly. The Wood junior, who wound up with 35 points — the most ever in a Catholic League semifinal — did all he could, knocking down a pair of free throws to get his team’s deficit back down to eight midway through the final quarter.
High-major recruit Rahsool Diggins (3) paced Wood with 35 points. The Vikings will still be a favorite in the PIAA 5A tournament. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
“He’s just a terrific player,” Griffin said of Diggins. “Our gameplan was to limit his touches, and when the going got tough, he seemed to be their guy.”
Though the Cahillites continued to get their points, the Vikings put on a heavy press throughout the fourth, hanging within single digits until the final minute.
So Roman turned to its lone veteran in Greer, who scored eight of his 18 points in the quarter, and the three-star point guard helped his team close things out from the charity stripe — the purple and gold hit on 18 of their 23 tries from the line in the stanza.
But equally important were Greer’s six assists on the night, making for plenty of easy offense as the Cahillites shot better than 50 percent from the field as a team.
“When everyone doubts us, that just makes us go so much harder,” Greer said. “We hear everything that everyone says about us. We just get back in the gym and work.”
Roman Catholic will take on No. 3 seed Neumann-Goretti, which beat Archbishop Ryan 51-41 in the second game of the doubleheader. The Cahillites suffered a 77-69 overtime defeat when it made the trip to N-G a little more than a month ago, but they controlled things in its lone matchup with Ryan 12 days back — part of a run of nine wins in their last 10 games.
A win Monday would mark the fifth championship in six seasons for Roman, as the Cahillites will look to secure a third straight PCL title when they return to The Palestra.
For some young teams, the bright lights of one of basketball’s most hallowed venues could be too much. But Roman knows this hardwood plenty well.
“We’ve been here before,” Duren said.
Roman Catholic: 19 | 17 | 19 | 27 | 83
Archbishop Wood: 8 | 18 | 11 | 36 | 73
Roman Catholic: 26-50 FG, 7-9 3PT, 24-31 FT
Archbishop Wood: 23-67 FG, 5-26 3 PT, 22-27 FT
Roman Catholic: Williams 25, Duren 20, Greer III 18, X. Brown 12, Lett 8
Archbishop Wood: Diggins 35, Randolph 15, Stinson 7, Newton 6, Shepherd 5, Jackson 5