Zak Wolf (@ZakWolf22)
It’s been two years since a Philadelphia Catholic League Playoff game was played at the Palestra. One global pandemic later, things picked up right where they left off: two Catholic League giants facing off against each other in the legendary “Cathedral of College Basketball”
In 2020, Neumann-Goretti and Roman Catholic played against each other in the PCL championship game and on Wednesday they found themselves doing battle again, this time in the semifinals.
Aamir Hurst (above) is one of only two players remaining from N-G's last trip to the Palestra. (Photo: Gavin Bethell/CoBL)
The two are no stranger to each other, often finding themselves in classic matchups at the Palestra, and tonight was no different. Just like 2020, Neumann came out on top, with a tightly contested 62-60 victory to advance to the final.
“Neumann and Roman could play 8 o’clock in the morning anywhere, it’s going to be a hard-fought contest,” Neumann-Goretti head coach Carl Arrigale said. “It was hard fought until the last possession; everybody got their money’s worth.
“I think somebody put on social media today that it’s one of the biggest rivalries in high school sports and it might as well be.”
Neumann-Goretti has faced a lot of adversity since winning the PCL in 2020. The Catholic League was shortened last season to just nine games and when playoffs rolled around, the Saints couldn’t defend their crown.
Neumann ran into COVID troubles towards the end of that season, and played their last game with fewer than 10 players, many of them from their JV team.
The Saints had the same issues this season, having to go on pause in the middle of the year because of COVID cases. This forced them to play most of their season within a two-and-a-half-week period; they played nine in 13 days to close the regular season. In a league like the PCL, where every game is a grind, it’s not easy to do what Neumann did, but there’s a reason that they’re at the Palestra year in and year out.
“To tell the truth, it almost felt like it was one game that lasted two and half weeks because we did the same thing in between games,” Arrigale said. “We played the same game, prepared for everybody. We just wanted to go three games without getting anybody hurt. We just wanted to play home in the first round of playoffs. That was our big goal.”
Neumann squeaked by La Salle in the quarterfinals to get to the Palestra and play in front of the raucous crowd. Coaching at the Palestra has been a normal occurrence for Arrigale over the years, but to get back after the break was satisfying.
“It was great,” Arrigale said. “It meant more for the kids, really. My time is running out. I really wanted these guys to experience it.”
The only two players remaining from Neumann’s last trip to the Palestra are Masud Stewart and Aamir Hurst, both of whom were reserves in 2020. The two played their roles on Wednesday in Neuman’s win, with Hurst scoring eight points and having great energy all over the floor. Hurst, who didn’t get on the floor much his first two seasons and dealt with injuries last year, had a big 3 to start the fourth quarter to put the Saints up 46-40.
Masud Stewart (4) played excellent defense against the PCL's leading scorer. (Photo: Gavin Bethell/CoBL)
Stewart had nine points and played solid defense on Roman forward Daniel Skillings (Cincinnati) down the stretch.
Skillings, the leading scorer in the PCL, scored a game-high 23, but Stewart made him work for it, forcing him to take contested shots in the lane. Stewart’s defense held Skillings without a 3-pointer after he shot it at a 38 percent clip during the regular season.
Stewart didn’t take the opportunity to play at the Palestra for granted, and helped his teammates prepare for what the atmosphere was going to be like.
“I was telling them that it’s going to be a lot of people,” Stewart said, “You’ve got to talk loud, got to be vocal. I understand in the big picture it’s easy to get nervous, but I told them not to get too nervous out there. Play the game and stay calm.”
His younger teammates took the advice to heart, with the sophomore duo of Robert Wright III and Khaafiq Myers combining for half of Neumann’s total points. Wright scored 20 and Myers scored 16, with the duo coming up clutch down the stretch for the Saints.
Wright and Myers had 13 of Neumann’s 16 points in the fourth quarter, showing their maturity despite not having as much varsity experience as others.
“I’m just happy I’ve got these two guys on my team.” Arrigale said with a smile.
The two hit some clutch free throws down the stretch, with Wright making the second of two free throws to put Neumann up 62-60 with five seconds left. Roman’s Khalil Farmer came racing up the court, but his floater attempt fell short at the buzzer, which sent Neuman players and fans into a frenzy.
Neumann will get the chance to play for their 22nd league title on Monday when they face off against Archbishop Ryan, who defeated West Catholic in their semifinal game.
“We’ve just got to prepare extra hard. We’ve just got to really lock in the gym and come together as a team,” Steward said.
The Cahiliites will have a chance to play in the PIAA state playoffs in the 6A classification, trying to win their first title since 2018.
Neumann-Goretti: 15 I 10 I 21 I 16 II 62
Roman Catholic: 15 I 14 I 11 I 20 II 60
Neumann Goretti: Wright III 20, Myers 16, Stewart 9, Hurst 8, Adewale 4, Williams 3, Smith 2,
Roman Catholic: Skillings 23, Farmer 17, X.Brown 8, Q. Brown 7, Jackson 3, Ojukwu 2