By Joseph Santoliquito (@JSantoliquito)
SPRINGFIELD — Robert Wright III wasn’t able to get out of bed three days ago. The Baylor-bound Neumann-Goretti 6-foot point junior guard was achy from a stomach virus. His temples throbbed. He couldn’t hold anything down. He was queasy. It hurt Wright even more that he couldn’t play against Roman Catholic in a critical Catholic League game Friday night.
He fought his father, Robert Wright II, about playing Monday night at Cardinal O’Hara. He felt compelled not to let his team down.
So, when his teammates were playing Roman on Friday night, Wright stayed home and shot by himself at a local gym, sporadically rushing to the bathroom when the urge hit.
Showing considerable grit and poise, Wright, sans his Superman cape and a bucket on Monday night, wound up with the winning layup with three seconds left to propel the Saints to a dramatic 61-60 comeback victory over a stunned O’Hara team.
By rebounding from a 21-point deficit, Neumann-Goretti improved to 17-2 overall and 10-1 in the Catholic League and secured its hold of first place, with Archbishop Ryan at home on Friday and finishing its league schedule hosting Conwell-Egan on Monday, Feb. 13. If the Saints win out, since they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker with Roman Catholic, they will win the Catholic League regular-season title.
Neumann-Goretti guard Robert Wright III, right, drives on Cardinal O'Hara's Izaiah Pasha. (Photo: Dan Hilferty/CoBL)
Saints’ coach Carl Arrigale warned of a letup after Neumann-Goretti’s exhaustive 62-60 victory over Roman.
The veteran coach was right.
Wright’s basket with three ticks left was Neumann-Goretti’s first lead of the game since the Saints were up, 3-2. Between then and Wright’s game-winning basket, O’Hara (13-6, 6-5 Catholic League) dominated the game.
Behind Iona-bound Izaiah Pasha, who scored a team-high 18, 16 in the first half, the Lions thundered out to a 22-8 lead after one quarter and had scored 42 points in the first half, holding a 42-23 edge. At one point, O’Hara was up 44-23 in the first minute of the third quarter.
The Lions shot 16 of 26 in the first half, to Neumann-Goretti’s 8 of 28. O’Hara moved the ball very well, getting open looks from three-point range, which O’Hara’s Christian Cervellero cashed in on, landing three in the second quarter and finishing with 15.
It seemed anything the Lions wanted to do, they did.
Neumann-Goretti, meanwhile, still seemed stuck on Friday night. The Saints did not move well defensively, and appeared to have no legs in the first three quarters.
“We did most of that damage to ourselves, we played with no energy, no poise, we didn’t do anything to help each other on either end,” Arrigale said. “I was afraid Robert would try to overdo it in the first half, but it was everyone. Maybe it was a case of being lazy.
“I said this after the Roman game Friday night, that if we didn’t play our best, the Roman victory would go to waste. We had to stop the pattern of laying eggs. We laid an egg tonight, and we showed some fight. We were at least competing when we were down. Our hope was to speed them up into taking bad shots and turning the ball over.
“Hopefully, we’ll get on the right page. It’s the closest we’ve had to a whole team and we didn’t look that good. I stayed with my guys, because they were going to clean up that mess or they were going to get a 20-point beating and feel it. We came within seconds of blowing Friday night’s effort.”
Neumann-Goretti guard Khaafiq Myers, left, drives on Cardinal O'Hara's Josh Coulanges. (Photo: Dan Hilferty/CoBL)
Wright struggled at the outset. He clearly wasn’t himself early on, missing his first five shots before downing a runner through the lane. He finished with a game-high 21, 15 in the second half, nine of which came in the fourth quarter.
“I was a mess for a few days, but I’m good now,” Wright said. “I had a stomach bug that was going around. The day we played Roman, I couldn’t get out of bed. I argued with my dad because I wanted to play. On Saturday I went to practice and got a little bit in, and on Sunday, I got more practice.
“I didn’t look good in the beginning. I kept telling myself to stay poised. We needed to stay together, and I knew once we did that, we were going to win. This was not easy.
“This says we can be the best team if we play together.”
Wright and Bruce Smith put the clamps on Pasha in the second half, when he only got off three shots.
“I had to come back,” Wright said.
With some urging from Arrigale. The 21-point deficit is the Saints’ largest comeback in about six years, the coach said.
He wasn’t so mild-mannered at halftime.
“Coach gave us a reality check at halftime, and we deserved it by the way we were playing,” said Saints’ guard Khaafiq Myers, who finished with 14. “We were never down by 20 against anyone this season. We all told each other to stay together and stay level-headed.
“It was good to have Robert back. It’s crazy. He wasn’t even able to get out of bed a few days ago. He wanted the ball in the end, and he got it. I don’t think anyone can stop us now once we get back to our regular rotation.”
Smith knew Wright would his groove.
“We knew he would come back,” Smith said. “I wasn’t surprised by what Robert did in the end.”
Afterward, O’Hara was left in pieces.
The Lions are still in good position to secure a playoff berth, with a crucial game at Father Judge on Friday, and hosting St. Joe’s Prep on Sunday.
This loss to Neumann-Goretti, however, will take some to get over.
“We don’t do a good job with pressure, we don’t move well as a team off the ball, and we over dribbled,” Pasha explained. “We fought hard. We had them. We were up by 20 and we easily showed in the first half we could compete with anyone in the Catholic League.
“Our offense in the second half wasn’t there. We need to move downhill and we didn’t. We’re not on the same page under pressure. Even in the last seconds, we still thought we were going to win. We played our hearts out. This one hurts. We’re doing everything to win, but closing against these top teams.”
As for Wright, it wasn’t his best performance—but clearly his gutsiest.
Neumann-Goretti (17-2, 10-1 Catholic League): 8 | 15 | 12 | 26 || 61
Cardinal O’Hara (13-6, 6-5 Catholic): 22 | 20 | 8 | 10 || 60
Neumann-Goretti: Robert Wright III 21, Sultan Adewale 15, Khaafiq Myers 14, Bruce Smith 7, Amir Williams 3, Stephon Ashley-Wright 1.
Cardinal O’Hara: Izaiah Pasha 18, Christian Cervellero 15, Pearse McGuinn 10, Aasim Burton 10, Josh Coulanges 7.
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.
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