Cameron Young (above) had 22 points as Neumann-Goretti captured its first PCL title in six years. (Photo: Gavin Bethell/CoBL)
Kevin Callahan (@CP_KCallahan)
PHILADELPHIA – By their lofty standards, Neumann-Goretti waited too long to be back in the Philadelphia Catholic League final.
So when Roman Catholic went on a surge at the end of the third quarter to take its first lead of the game, the Saints weren’t about to fold.
“We couldn’t let it get away,” Neumann-Goretti senior Jordan Hall said after a 66-58 triumph Monday night before a sold out and electric Palestra. “We’ve been working every day since we lost to Roman (in the semifinals) here last year. And when you work every day, that’s how you become successful.”
The Saints, who had won the six straight PCL championships from 2009-14, responded with 12 unanswered points after losing the lead and held the two-time defending league champs without a field goal for almost six minutes to reclaim the coveted Catholic crown.
“We were doing it for the whole school,” added the versatile 6-foot-8 Hall who does whatever it is needed on the court and when it is needed, “we’re like a family here.”
With the win, Neumann Goretti coach Carl Arrigale passed former Roman Catholic coach Dennis Seddon with his 11th league title for most in Catholic history.
“My dad couldn’t be here tonight because he’s not feeling too well and he was the one who talked about it the most,” Arrigale said. “But my sister told me he’s so happy right now, it means more for him than me.
Before the game, the Catholic League honored Speedy Morris, the St. Joseph’s Prep coach who is retiring after five decades of coaching at the end of the season.
Morris, whose legend started as the coach of Roman Catholic in the 1970’s, coached both Arrigale (at Penn Charter) and Roman Catholic coach Matt Griffin (St. Joseph’s Prep) in high school.
“He has had a big impact on my life, I’ve watched his children grow up, he is a great man,” Arrigale said, “and it was really nice that Matty and I were both in the final here.
“I coached against Matty and three of his assistants … I’m getting old.”
Arrigale, though, wanted to talk about his team after beating Roman, which had won four of the previous five PCL titles, saying, “It’s definitely a weight lifted off my shoulders, but it’s all about these guys, a band of misfits and people didn’t think we had a shot.
“it’s about these guys, like Blaise Vespe, who took a charge late when we were on a run and then hit a 3-pointer,” Arrigale continued. “It was a great team effort
The Saints, who had defeated Roman 77-69 in double OT in mid-January, squandered an eight-point lead at the half and trailed by four early in the final period. Then, after a short jumper by senior guard Hakim Byrd cut the Cahillites lead to 47-45 in the first minute of the fourth quarter, Vespe and Cameron Young hit consecutive 3-pointers and suddenly Neumann-Goretti led 51-47 and Roman called time out.
Hall, who signed with Saint Joseph’s University, added two free throws for a 53-47 lead before Vespe drew a pivotal offensive charge. With the ball and the lead, the Saints spread their offense and took the clock down to 3:07 before taking a time out.
Blaise Vespe (above) and his father Will celebrate after Neumann-Goretti's win. (Photo: Kevin Callahan/CoBL)
“Coach said to us not to leave the game with any regrets, to leave it all on the floor,” the athletic 6-6 Vespe said after pulling himself off the fabled Palestra hardwood. “It wasn’t my best game offensively.
It was the 29th charge Vespe drew this year, showing the junior will do anything it takes to win.
The win was secured by after two free throws by junior guard Hysier Miller padded the Saints’ lead 55-47. By the time Roman senior guard Lynn Greer III stopped the decisive 12-0 run with the Cahillites’ first field goal of the fourth quarter on a 3-pointer at the 2:12 mark, it was only a matter of Neumann-Goretti finishing the game off at the foul line.
And, after a layup by Vespe, the Saints scored their next seven points from the foul line for a 64-55 lead with 23 seconds left as Roman was forced to chase.
“He thought he really let us down the other night, he thought he didn’t play well and he took it pretty hard,” Arrigale said about Vespe in the semifinal win. “But he might’ve had his best practice of the year (Sunday) and he stepped up and he hit that big three and he did what he did for us all year on the defense when he took that big charge when we were making our yard run .
“It was good to see the smile on his face because he thought he let us down.”
Vespe also played tough inside defense on Jalen Duren, a gifted 6-9 sophomore. Duren, who collected 20 points and 18 rebounds in the semifinals win over Archbishop Wood, was on pace to hit the same numbers with 10 points and nine rebounds in the first half against Neumann-Goretti, but he was earning every point and board as Vespe and Chris Evans and the rest of the Saints bodied him on every Roman possession and boxed him out on every shot.
Jalen Duren (above) had 13 points and 17 rebounds for Roman. (Photo: Gavin Bethell/CoBL)
Duren finished with 13 points and 17 rebounds.
“I really want to get a championship for coach and the seniors it was their last game here,” said Vespe, “so I’m very happy.”
Even though Duren was being smothered and not getting a shot off, Roman managed to creep within a basket at 37-35 when Greer III drained a long 3-pointer with 5:45 left in third quarter.
After a dunk by Young (22 points) padded the Saints lead to 41-35, Roman ripped eight straight and took its first lead of the game on a spinning jumper in the lane by Greer III at the 1:12 mark of the third quarter for a 42-41 advantage.
A driving layup by Byrd gave the lead back to Neumann-Goretti, but Justice Williams answered with a 3-pointer to give the Cahillites a 45-43 lead after three quarters.
“It was my first time in the championship and it felt great,” Byrd said. “I wanted to go out with a bang, and now I’m a legend at Neumann.”
With Duren patrolling the paint in the back of Roman’s 2-3 zone, Neumann-Goretti settled for 3-pointers and hit five straight, including three in a row by Young, to seize a 21-16 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Roman extended its 2-3 zone and the Saints started pulling up for short jumpers and Byrd hit two pull-ups for a 27-20 lead midway through the second quarter.
The Saints used their own defense to generate offense as Miller (18 points) stripped Greer III at the top of the key for a breakaway layup and a 33-25 lead at the half on their way to the 21st title in school history.
“That’s a good team and a great program,” Arrigale said about Roman. “They were the measuring stick when I first came into the league. We chased them and caught them a few times.”
Roman Catholic (16-9) isn’t done and could win a state championship. The Cahillites play Public League finalist Simon Gratz in the District 12 Class 6A title game Friday.
“They are really a talented a team and they have a great player who will dominate the league the next two years,” Byrd said about Duren. “We were the underdog, but we did it.”
On Thursday, the Saints (21-4) plays High School of the Future for the District 12 Class 3A title.
“When it’s over, hopefully in late March,” Arrigale said when asked about setting the Catholic record for coaching titles, “I’ll have time to reflect on it.”