Stepinac players celebrate win over Cardinal Hayes in CHSAA 'A' Intersectional championship game Friday at Fordham.
The game seemed to be falling apart before Tim Philp's eyes, but Stepinac's sixth-year coach wasn't worrying.
It was halftime of Friday's CHSAA 'A' Intersectional championship game at Fordham University, and the Crusaders were trailing Cardinal Hayes by 11. They'd been blitzed in the game's early moments and seemed out of sync, making turnover after sloppy turnover.
But Philp wasn't about to yell. He quieted his locker room, then reminded his team that they'd played tougher games this season, that they'd lost to powerful Bishop Loughlin and loaded Iona Prep.
"I told them to just calm down," he said. "All we needed to do was calm down."
And that's all the Crusaders needed to hear. A more relaxed Stepinac team dominated Hayes in the second half en route to a 61-54 victory and the school's first city title since 1993.
"At first we were sucked in by all the lights and the environment, and we were tight," said junior guard James Chillemi. "But we settled down in that third quarter, and we were good."
The game's opening moments seemed to hint at an easy Hayes victory. Led by senior Nay-Quan Bloomer, the Cardinals opened the first quarter on a 9-2 run and held a 20-8 advantage early in the second. They were rebounding with ferocity, and 6-8 sophomoreAmadou Sidibe was halting every Stepinac drive.
The Crusaders closed to within 21-20 on a Rich Whitten layup with 2:36 to play in the half, but the Cardinals responded with a quarter-ending 11-1 run.
"They just had more energy than us at that point," said senior center Conroy Baltimore. "We just weren't settled."
Philp's halftime speech changed that. The Crusaders were the aggressors in the third. It was Baltimore who owned the second half, redirecting Hayes' shots and controlling the backboards. He scored 19 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and made six blocks, and almost all of that production came in the second half.
Stepinac held Hayes to just five points on 1-of-15 shooting in the third quarter, and the Cardinals never recovered. They'd played the first half with swagger and confidence; but in the second, every player - even the ever-confident Bloomer - was passing up shots, seemingly afraid to miss.
"We just fell apart," Bloomer said. "We were doing good, and the momentum just shifted."
Not that Philip was surprised. Afterward, the coach claimed that he hadn't worried during his squad's shaky first half, because he knew they'd come back.
"We're a good team," Philp said. "We just needed to settle in."
- with Dylan Kitts