Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Neumann-Goretti’s impressive four-year undefeated run through the Catholic League is no more.
The Saints’ 73-game conference win streak came to a surprising end at La Salle College HS as the Explorers needed a fourth-quarter comeback to win, 65-62.
A pair of seniors had big games to propel La Salle (8-3, 2-0) to victory. Amar Stukes had 26 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter, and Steve Smith had 19 on six 3-pointers.
“Just a big win, big great win,” Stukes said. “I don’t even know, I’m so excited right now, just a big win over a great team.”
Neumann-Goretti broke a second-quarter tie by scoring the final 10 points before half and led by as many as 11 after the break, but La Salle would close the third quarter on a 9-2 run to trail just 47-43 entering the final period of play.
“We could have bent a little bit, we were down 11 in that third quarter and the guys stayed poised,” La Salle coach Joe Dempsey said after the game. “I got seven seniors and it’s about poise.
“I said ‘Look guys, our will’s going to be tested. One of two things is going to happen–they’re going to go up 16 and I’m going to call timeout and it could get ugly, or we could reground and chip away and stay with the plan,’ and they stayed with the plan.”
That plan was to get the ball in the hands of their two best players, and it worked to perfection. Buckets by Malik Janifer (four points) and Alex Cuoci (10 points) helped edge La Salle closer, and then Stukes ignited the crowd with a fast-break layup, drawing a foul on Troy Harper to complete the 3-point play and give La Salle the lead at 48-47 with 4:55 to play.
Next was the 6-foot-8 Smith’s turn to give the Explorers a boost as he hit back-to-back 3-pointers with four minutes left that put his team up 54-51. Stukes scored eight of the next 10 points for La Salle, including a layup on an inbounds play where he got free and drew a foul; the resulting free-throw made it 61-56 and ended any realistic hope of a Neumann-Goretti miracle.
“During the game (ending the win streak) was not (on my mind), but towards the end when the game was ticking down, I knew that we made history tonight,” Smith said.
Stukes and Smith, also teammates on the AAU circuit with the talented Jersey Shore Warriors, were considering attending college together but Stukes is headed to La Salle University while Smith heads up to Fairfield.
“They’ve been playing together for four years, and they trust each other,” Dempsey said. “They’re just two great kids, too, we’re lucky to have them.”
Neumann-Goretti has been one of the best programs in the area over the years, including recently; the three-time defending state champions have sent numerous players to the Division I ranks in the last few seasons, including La Salle’s Tyreek Duren, Villanova’s Tony Chennault, Rider’s Danny and Derrick Stewart, and former Syracuse guard Scoop Jardine. Now, a win streak that dates all the way back to 2009 (last loss: Feb. 16, 2008 to Roman Catholic) and has seen the Saints outscore their opponents by an average of over 25 points (according to TedSilary.com) has come to an end.
“At the end of the day it’s another Catholic League win, but I’d be stupid to say it wasn’t special,” Dempsey said. “They’re a great program, they’re a program by which every other Catholic League program measures themselves. They’re a nationally ranked team, a national power. Their coaches do a great job, and really for us it was about taking a step and beating a good team.”
“It’s something that we’re proud of,” Neumann-Goretti coach Carl Arrigale told CoBL about the streak. “Not proud of the way we played tonight, or the way we’ve been playing, but it’s a great accomplishment. The guys that were part of it deserve all the accolades, but to lose it the way we did tonight, not playing together and stuff, I wish we would have lost it in a different fashion.”
Junior guard Ja’Quan Newton had 18 points to pace Neumann-Goretti (7-4, 3-1); sophomore point guard Lamarr Kimble had 13 points while senior John Davis added 11 for the Saints.
Both teams resume Catholic League play on Friday when Neumann-Goretti hosts West Catholic and La Salle gets a visit from Roman Catholic.