The CHSAA’s “A” semifinals will be held tonight at Cardinal Spellman. Here’s the schedule:
6 p.m.: Cardinal Hayes vs. St. Joe’s by the Sea
7:30 p.m.: Stepinac vs. Xavier
Obviously, the game of interest here is the nightcap. I talked to Stepinac coach Tim Philip yesterday after his team’s last practice. So let’s touch on a couple topics:
The opponent: Xavier — A lot has been made out of Iona Prep’s 78-75 loss to Xavier on Saturday because the Gaels were the defending champ, the tournament favorite and hadn’t lost a game in the league in two seasons. Clearly, it was an upset, but for many reasons Xavier entered the game miscast as a four-seed.
Two of Xavier’s role players, forward Bobby Gallagher and guard Max Grunner, both missed the majority of the season. Gallagher broke his ankle and Grunner suffered knee pain because of a torn meniscus. When those two returned late in the regular season, Xavier became a deeper team, which made its press more dangerous and versatile.Check out this story from the New York Post about Xavier’s 82-58 win over St. John’s Prep on Feb. 17 and you can hear coach Joe McGranedescribe the difference it made having a healthy team.
Although Philip was surprised Xavier survived — this was a team that needed a buzzer-beater to ward off Regis in 2OT just to advance — he respects the Manhattan school immensely.
“Xavier is always tough,” Philip said. “They play real smart, real tough, and they’re well-coached. They run their stuff well and they don’t make too many mistakes. They’re just a tough team.”
Usually, when you hear coaches use the word “tough” it’s a cover for “unathletic” or “untalented.” But whether it’s Philip or others I’ve spoken to the last couple days, the word tough is heaped on Xavier with reverence. After falling behind Iona 22-9, not only did Xavier rally back to pull ahead by as many as 12, it outmuscled the Gaels. As you can read here in the Post’s story about the upset, a worn out Brian Voelkel — who we can all agree is one of the most well-conditioned players in the county — missed time in the final minute with cramps.
Who to watch for: Xavier’s weapons — As for the talent, Xavier senior point guard Eddie Sullivan is the leader, followed two other senior guards Bobby Bruns, who hit the buzzer-beater vs. Regis, andBilly Hunter. But who could pose the biggest problem? Try the Knights’ 6-foot-3 senior Euroy Smith, a slasher and leaper who has drawn interest Holy Cross and Virginia Union. Those three lead Xavier in scoring, but you can take a look at the whole roster on the CHSAA’s website.
The favorite: Stepinac — Despite Xavier’s recent good health and its success, the Crusaders enter the game as the favorite. They have won five straight and eight of 10. Their only two losses from Jan. 29th on were against league champ Iona Prep and Bishop Loughlin, one of the top teams in the city.
Stepinac showed why it has emerged as a title contender on Saturday vs. McClancy. The game was tight. Six-foot-6 star forward Conroy Baltimore spent much of the game on the bench in foul trouble and scored just two points. But Richie Whitten and James Chillemi picked up the slack.
“I think we’re just finding ways to win,” Philip said. “When some guys don’t play well, other guys step up. Conroy only had two points. If you would’ve told me that before the game, I would’ve thought we’d have a hard time winning. But we won.”
The key question: Was Stepinac lucky? — The moment Iona Prep and Mount were out, Stepinac moved to the forefront. It swept two close games from another semifinalist, Cardinal Hayes. People looked around and saw teams that went 4-0 against the Crusaders and assumed the people on Mamaroneck Ave. were dusting off a new spot for the trophy. Guess again. Stepinac knows it can’t afford to look past Xavier.
“You can’t look at it like that,” Philip said. “With them being out, yeah, they were the heavy favorite, so the door’s wide open now. But you still have to play the game. We have to take it one possession, one quarter at a time.”
For updates on that quest, log in here tonight. My colleague Jake Thomases will be down at Spellman and will shoot me updates. Log on here to see if Stepinac can advance to Friday’s final at Fordham.