The St. John Neumann Pirates were pushed to the edge of the playoff plank on Friday, and they didn’t like the view.
The idea of the defending Catholic League boys’ basketball champs making a first-round playoff exit just wasn’t acceptable.
And thanks to a game-tying three-pointer by senior Richard "Tabby" Cunningham and a game-winning layup by Adon El, the Pirates came out on top, 55-53.
Tonight, the local squad will head back to La Salle University, where it will face Northern Division champ Cardinal Dougherty in the semifinals. Dougherty finished the regular season with a 14-0 record and a 23-3 overall mark. The winner will advance to Saturday night’s Catholic League championship, where it will play the victor of last night’s other semifinal between St. Joseph’s Preparatory and La Salle.
Like the other remaining squads, the Pirates are hungrier than ever to win the Catholic League title. Friday’s hard-fought victory served as the wakeup call from their playoff snooze. Cunningham, who has started at point guard on Neumann’s last two championship teams, stressed his team can’t afford to hold anything back.
"It takes somebody to smack us in the face or whatever for us to get up," the junior said. "You can’t do that, especially in the playoffs. We know better."
Tonight, Neumann’s test will be a very talented Dougherty squad, which has three players averaging 12 points or more a game. DeSean White, 20.1 points per game, and Kyle Lowry, 17.5 points per game, are the leading scorers in the Northern Division, while Shane Clarke is averaging 12.4 points a contest. Despite the formidable challenge, the Pirates believe they can rely on their skills and teamwork to win.
"I want to go out as a winner," senior Antwain Wynn said. "I am going to try and do whatever it takes to try and come out as a winner."
On Friday, the Pirates were trailing 51-48, with just over two minutes remaining. Roman extended the lead to five when Roman’s Andre Sloan-El connected on two free throws. With 1:37 remaining on the clock, Neumann’s El scored a layup, closing the gap to 53-50.
With 16 seconds left, Cunningham connected on a three-pointer to tie the game at 53.
The Pirates huddled before taking their next shot, and decided it should go to Cunningham, but the Roman defense had the junior covered. Wynn passed the ball to El, who hit the game-winning layup with no time remaining.
"I got the ball and I had no time to think," said El. "I just knew I had to get the shot up."
Coach Carl Arrigale said a lot of guys in the huddle wanted to take the shot, including El.
"My gut was tingling that something was going to happen in our favor," the player said. "I knew it was going to go in as soon as it left my hand."
The win was the Pirates’ third over Roman Catholic this year, which includes two double-digit victories during the regular season.
"This will be the last wakeup call we need," Arrigale said. "We beat them rather easily both times. They made some adjustments and just really played hard."
Roman Catholic’s Charron Fisher, who entered the contest averaging a Southern Division-best 21.1 points per game, led the Cahillites with 25 points, while the other five scorers were held to 10 points or less. Cunningham led the Pirates with 15 points, while El had 13 and senior Todd Johnson had 11.
The Neumann players are hoping this is the end of their recent struggles, which started with a 35-point loss to the Prep on Valentine’s Day. The local squad hasn’t lost since, but has struggled to play like a championship team.
"It’s driving me crazy," Arrigale said. "At this time last year, we were playing better. It’s the same group of guys.
"I think these guys take things for granted sometimes."
If the Pirates beat Dougherty tonight, Saturday will mark their fourth straight appearance in the title game. They lost in 2000 to Roman Catholic. Most of the current roster of players didn’t experience a championship success until last season. Now they vow that despite some missteps, they are ready to win another.
"We came close to putting the uniforms in the bag [Friday night]," Arrigale said. "If I know anything about these kids, we are going to play better from start to finish."
Catholic League basketball semifinals
Neumann vs. Cardinal Dougherty 7 p.m.
At La Salle University
Catholic League championship
Neumann-Cardinal Dougherty winner vs. St. Joseph’s Prep-La Salle winner 6 p.m.
At La Salle University