The 10-point lead had been erased and the once back-and-forth affair had settled into a half-court, grind-it-out slugfest. The pressure was rising and tension building.
It was the kind of game Thomas Jefferson may have lost last year. But, so far this season, it is one the Orange Wave are winning.
Jefferson held off Bishop Loughlin’s late rally, sank all its free throws and made key defensive stops late for a 63-61 victory in Big Apple Basketball’s PSAL-CHSAA Challenge on Sunday evening at Baruch College in Manhattan.
“That,” sophomore point guard Davontay Grace said, “says a lot about us. We could’ve easily (given) that game away.”
But they didn’t. On a night when Joel (Air Jamaica) Wright was assessed more fouls (5) than points scored (3), Grace and senior guard Keith Spellman made up for his lack of production by combining for 46, 25 by Spellman, who also grabbed 12 rebounds.
“It’s a great win,” Jefferson coach Lawrence Pollard said.
Jefferson (5-0) raced out to a 20-10 first-quarter lead and was ahead until Loughlin guard Antoine Brown’s 3-pointer gave the Lions a 36-35 advantage late in the third quarter. The Orange Wave built the lead back up to seven, 49-42, after Spellman completed an old fashioned 3-point play, but Loughlin went ahead again on a Kareem Canty (10 points) floater off the glass with 2:54 remaining.
Grace and Spellman answered with baskets to seemingly put it away. But a late turnover and intentional foul on Austin Corwin gave Loughlin life. Spellman ended it by stripping Brown (game-high 26 points) before he could unleash a possible game-tying 3-pointer.
The play was emblematic of Jefferson’s changing dynamic. While they have as much talent as anyone offensively – as was the case last year –the Orange Wave is becoming a better defensive club. They limited Loughlin’s dominant inside duo of Jayvaughn Pinkston and Trevon Hamlet to 20 points and eight rebounds.
Pinkston missed most of the first half after collecting two offensive fouls – both drawn by Spellman – but wasn’t his usual effective self most of the evening, thanks to an active fronting defense and stellar effort by centers Kyle Francis and Edson Avila, who combined to block six shots.
“It shows we’ve grown,” Grace said. “We got smarter as basketball players. We’re thinking the game this year.”
Loughlin will learn from this weekend, coach Rudy King hopes. On Friday, the Lions fell to Long Island power St. Dominic in a shocking upset. Then, they failed to take advantage of their opportunities and turned the ball over an astounding 26 times against Jefferson. Of course, with such a new backcourt, consistency was bound to be a problem.
“If we don’t play fundamental basketball, this is what we get,” the interim coach said. “The only thing you can do is teach them to learn from mistakes.”
As for Jefferson, the emotional victory is proof it belongs in the discussion when it comes to the city’s upper echelon. Many have predicted Loughlin as a possible favorite to win the CHSAA crown. Yet, the Orange Wave knocked the Lions off with Wright struggling. Early last week, Jefferson pulled away late from a Boys & Girls team that beat another Catholic power, Christ the King, Saturday night.
There are still many tests left for this developing program - Thursday’s showdown at three-time defending city champion Lincoln the most noteworthy.
“We got to take them down,” Spellman said.