Jordan Hall (above) and Neumann-Goretti will take on Roman Catholic in the 2020 PCL Championship. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
By Kevin Callahan (@CP_KCallahan)
PHILADELPHIA – Playing in the Philadelphia Catholic League final seemed like a birthright for Neumann-Goretti over recent years, including winning six straight from 2009-2015.
Understandably, after losing in the semifinals last year, the Saints were determined to return to the title game.
“It means a lot,” Neumann-Goretti senior point guard Hakim Byrd said. “Last year we lost in this game … I was crying.”
Overcoming sluggish shooting, Neumann-Goretti has returned to their familiar ground playing for the championship, holding off Archbishop Ryan 51-41 in the nightcap of Wednesday’s night’s Catholic League semifinal doubleheader at the Palestra.
“All in all, it’s the old saying, you know you don’t apologize for winning, it doesn’t matter how much or how, as long as you do,” Neumann Goretti coach Carl Arrigale said. “And now we have another game to play.”
The third-seeded Saints (20-4) advance to the championship against fifth-seeded Roman Catholic (16-8), which dropped top-seeded Archbishop Wood 83-73 in the opener.
Neumann-Goretti watched last year as the Cahillites won their second-straight championship.
“You got to play somebody in the final,” Arrigale said matter-of-factly about meeting the Cahillites in another PCL final. “This was one of our goals. We wanted to play on Monday night and obviously you want to close the deal, but you don’t have a chance to do that if you’re not there.”
In mid-January, the Saints defeated Roman 77-69 in double OT.
“We are there Monday night and that gives us the opportunity,” Arrigale said.
Archbishop Ryan (16-9), who were minus Aaron Lemon-Warren, a junior forward who was leading the PCL in scoring at 24 points a game before being sidelined in late January with a broken foot, had cut a 15-point deficit early in the third quarter to just three points five minutes later to sneak within striking distance going into the fourth quarter.
But the Saints scored the first two buckets of the final frame on layups by Cameron Young and Jordan Hall to pad their lead back to double digits at 45-34.
Having a healty Hakim Byrd (above) back on the court has been big for Neumann-Goretti. (Photo: Gavin Bethell/CoBL)
Holding a nine-point lead with just over three minutes to play, the Saints pulled out their offense and forced Ryan to chase and foul. And that meant chasing the talented Byrd, a Marist commit.
Arrigale was certainly relieved to see Byrd on the court after he was injured late in the season and missed some games.
“He’s our heart and soul, he’s our closer,” Arrigale said. “We need him, we need each of out guys, but I shorten the rotation a little bit and I do that a lot when it comes down to these games.”
After the game, Byrd said he was about 80 percent healthy, before saying he was 95 percent. Whatever the percentage is, he will be ready Monday.
“When I missed the games, it was quite kind of frustrating,” he said, “we want to win a championship.”
Neumann-Goretti, which won the regular season meeting 75-58 on January 27 at Ryan, used a mix of 3-pointers and layups to build a nine-point lead at the half.
Hysier Miller quickly handed the Saints their largest lead of the game at 31-19 with a 3-pointer to open the second half and then Byrd drained a corner trey for a quick 15-point lead.
“We came out of the locker room and I said ‘here we go, we’re going to have a little bit better shooting,’ but we got back to do some silly stuff offensively,” Arrigale said.
The Raiders, though, weren’t about to go away and scored the next 12 points, including six by Christian Isopi, to trim the Saints’ lead to 34-31 with 2:37 left in third quarter.
A 3-pointer by Chris Evans stopped a 4:35 scoreless draught and a reverse baseline layup by Jordan Hall at the buzzer extended the Saints lead to 41-34 at the end of three quarters.
“We are a team that relies on shooting but we didn’t shoot so well, so I’m really happy with our defense of effort,” Arrigale said. ”I was very proud the last three quarters the way we defended. They run a lot of good stuff, they run a lot of misdirection stuff.
“We were prepared for that stuff, but you still have to be in the right position to defend it.”
In the first half, Ryan seized an early lead when Dominic Vazquez buried a deep 3-pointer and was fouled and then the sophomore guard made the free throw for a 9-7 advantage. Sophomore guard Luke Boyd hit a long trey for a sudden five point lead spread and Ryan settled for a 16-14 lead after the first eight minutes.
The Saints opened the second quarter with a 3-pointer by Chris Evans to take the lead and spark a 10-0 run for a 24-16 advantage.
Ryan didn’t score until 1:15 left in the half when Gediminas Mokseckas converted a 3-point play on a drive and free throw to slice the Saints’ lead to 24-19, but Cameron Young and Jordan Hall responded with back-to-back layups to pad the lead to nine points with 30 seconds left. Ryan didn’t get a shot off to end the half and keep the Saints’ lead at 28-19.
“We’re not going to stop shooting,” Arrigale said. “We’re going to keep firing, that’s what we do.”
And, you know, the Saints will surely keep shooting Monday night.
“We’re going to be ready to play, winner or lose we are going to be ready to play,” Arrigale said.
NG 14 | 14 | 13 | 10 | 51
AR: 16 | 3 | 15 | 7 | 41
Neumann: 18-50 FG, 7-25 3PT, 8-10 FT
Ryan: 15-48 FG, 5-19 3PT, 6-11 FT
Neumann: Miller 12, Hall 12, Young 10, Byrd 9, Chr. Evans 9
Ryan: Boyd 12, Mokseckas 11, Isopi 7, Vazquez 6, Snead 5