Joseph Santoliquito (@jsantoliquito)
One tunes out the world by taking a pre-game nap. Any time the Neumann-Goretti Saints walk into their dressing room they’re not surprised to see sophomore guard Khaafiq Myers curled up on a bench sound asleep. Nothing phases Myers, except maybe a tap on the check to wake him up.
The other one tunes out the world with tunes. It eases Robert Wright III and squeezes out the pre-game jitters. Nothing phases him, either, until he’s tapped on the shoulder to remind him that the team is about to take the court for warmups.
Robert Wright III (above) played a key role in Neumann-Goretti's PCL semifinal win Wednesday night. (Photo: Gavin Bethell/CoBL)
Combined, the pair stared down Roman Catholic, the Catholic League’s No. 1 seed, and an energetic, purple-clad crowd with a poise that belied their age Wednesday night in the Catholic League semifinals at Penn’s fabled Palestra.
The hardwood at the Palestra has been a quicksand of pressure for many players who ran up and down that court.
Not to Myers and Wright.
The two combined for 36 of the Saints’ 62 points in leading No. 4 Neumann-Goretti to a somewhat surprising 62-60 victory over Roman Catholic (18-4) to reach the Catholic League championship, which will take place Monday night against Archbishop Ryan, 59-55 winners over West Catholic in the other semifinal.
What was most impressive is that Myers and Wright scored 13 of Neumann-Goretti’s 16 fourth quarter points, including six free throws in the final minute to assure the victory for the Saints (16-4).
Again, nothing rattles Wright and Myers.
That came later, when the most dramatic portion of their night was sitting before the mics in addressing the media at the post game press conference. Neither sat in front of mics before a media gathering to answer questions.
If they continue playing the way they did Wednesday night, the tandem better get used to it.
“These two guys are sophomore and I bet you half the kids in our building don’t even know (Wright and Myers),” Saints’ coach Carl Arrigale joked. “They’re two terrific kids and two terrific basketball players, but they’ve been walking around in masks not allowed to do anything for two years and that’s a travesty that people don’t know these two guys.
“Well after tonight, they know them.”
Myers laughed at the notion of dealing with more fear after the game than during it.
Khaafiq Myers (above) hit two key free throws in the final seconds of Wednesday's game to heal seal the win. (Photo: Gavin Bethell/CoBL)
“I was definitely more nervous in front of the mic, because I never did it before,” said Myers, who landed two crucial free throws with 21.6 seconds left that gave the Saints a 61-57 lead. “During the game, I stayed calm and relaxed. I felt like I’ve been here before. I kept saying it. I missed the (front end of a one-and-one with 1:57 left). I knew when I got to the foul line again, I had to relax and take my time.
“When we got started (at Neumann-Goretti), no one knew who we were. I think they know us now.”
Myers finished with 16 points, six in the last quarter. Wright, who’s received offers from Wichita State, Wake Forest, La Salle, Seton Hall and Delaware State, finished with a team-high 20—with seven coming in the final quarter.
Wright had some payback against Roman. He’s played exceptionally well all season, with the one clunker coming in the Saints’ regular season loss to Roman. In that game, Wright admits, he forced some things and made uncharacteristic mistakes.
“I knew I had to make shots tonight,” Wright said. “When we played Roman the first time, I was missing a lot of threes. I got right back in the gym and got right. I knew I had to stay calm and stayed poised, because sometimes I can get above myself and do too much. I had to relax.
“When I was on that foul line (in the last minute), I kept thinking, ‘If I want to be a big player, this means I have to step up and show that I’m a big player.’ I took my time and followed through. You know, I really didn’t hear (the crowd on the foul line). I just played my favorite song in my head. I tuned it out.
“I think the school knows us now. Neumann-Goretti is like family.”
Saints’ senior leader Masud Stewart has seen the maturation of Myers and Wright first hand.
“Nothing bothers them,” Stewart said. “Playing all season was a big help to us. This is really like their freshman year, because we didn’t play that much last year. Other people watching them for the first time may have been surprised, but they didn’t surprise me. Nothing they do surprises me.
“They’re really good now and they’re only sophomores. It’s going to be scary when they’re seniors. They’re only going to get better.”
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who began writing for CoBL in 2021 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.