Saturday, January 6, 2018

Stepinac fends off Iona Prep in seesaw battle to take Crusader Classic feature

By Eugene Rapay (@erapay5)
Special To Daly Dose Of Hoops

WHITE PLAINS, NY -- It’s not so often that tickets for a high school basketball game go up for sale a month before it even happens, let alone before the season.

That was exactly what happened for Iona Prep and Archbishop Stepinac, two CHSAA rivals set to square off at the Westchester County Center as the featured event in the Crusader Classic doubleheader.

Months of buildup and a social media campaign to surround this matchup of top programs loaded with Division I talent between both teams was enough to get a few thousand to come out on a cold Friday evening. In front of a sold-out, standing room-only crowd, the Crusaders delivered in a thrilling double-overtime win, in an 82-78 victory for a game that lived up to the hype.

“There was a lot of work put into this,” said Stepinac head coach Patrick Massaroni, about the Crusader Classic. “It’s so rewarding for our kids to play on a stage like that and win, it’s rewarding. That’s the bottom line.”

It was certainly a hard-fought win, in a back-and-forth affair that featured 19 lead changes, with neither team ever holding a lead that was more than five points apart. 

There was also a sense of relief for the Crusaders, who had to deal with two last-second Iona Prep baskets to extend the game. The first, a corner three by Romar Reid at the end of regulation to send the game into overtime. Then, another at the end of the first overtime period by Souleymane Koureissi. After an off-ball foul gifted Iona Prep with one last possession, the Richmond-bound senior received the ball in the corner. With the clock winding down, he proceeded to pull up from deep and nail the game-tying shot with two defenders in his face, giving the Gaels one more chance.

“The message was we got to keep fighting, and we got to keep playing,” Massaroni said. “That’s what we did. We can’t worry about what happened. They hit the first one -- we didn’t call timeout on purpose. The second one, it was a great shot -- unbelievable shot. Heads were down and I told ‘em they need to keep their heads up and keep fighting for four more minutes, and that’s what we did.”

That’s when Stepinac’s Griffin brothers, Alan and Adrian, stepped up. Alan, a senior, drained a pull-up three off the dribble to give the Crusaders a one-point lead. Then his younger brother, A.J. -- a freshman -- provided a much-needed boost by supplying a series of free throws at the end, including a decisive 2-for-2 trip to the line with 9.2 seconds to put them up by four.

“My coaches took me aside and told me to take a deep breath,” A.J. said of his last trip to the free throw line. “I envisioned myself making the shots, and they went in.”

It was a big moment for the freshman, who had played in his first rivalry game against Iona Prep. He had a solid night, finishing with 15 points, six rebounds, and four blocks off the bench. His brother had a big part in the game too, leading the way with a game-high 26 points, including four baskets from deep.

“We were just really pumped,” Alan said. “We just knew to come out with a lot of energy. We knew we were going to win. It sagged off in the overtimes, but we were able to grind through it and stick to it.”

The Griffin brothers also got a great amount of help from sophomore R.J. Davis, who sank four of the team’s 10 three-pointers in the win. Davis also finished with 26 points.

While the perimeter game played a big part in Stepinac’s success, its rival Iona Prep decided to go the opposite direction, and did most of its damage inside. Koureissi and American commit Josh Alexander used their size advantage and bullied their way through double-teams numerous times. Koureissi had a team-high 23 points and 12 rebounds, while Alexander added another 18 points. Meanwhile, their teammate and recent Stanford commit Bryce Wills, a top-three 2018 prospect in the state of New York, added 11 points, six rebounds, three assists, and a pair of blocks.

The Gaels will look for their shot at revenge when the two rivals meet again next month, this time on their home court. For now, Stepinac reigns supreme once again.

1) Stepinac’s Alan Griffin is beginning to get high-major looks: The 6-foot-5 senior guard currently has 13 offers. There are a lot of local schools mixed in -- Hofstra, Fordham, Marist, Manhattan, Iona -- as well as mid-majors such as Saint Louis, La Salle, and UMass. He is an impressive scorer, one that can do so from almost anywhere. He did a lot of his work against Iona Prep’s Wills, who is regarded as a great defensive player and prospect. Alan scored on a lot of tough baskets off the dribble or through traffic. He’s also not afraid to crash the boards and work on defense, racking up eight rebounds against a bigger Iona Prep frontcourt. He says that West Virginia, Miami, Dayton, Baylor, and Florida State have started to show interest, however, he doesn’t plan on giving the college process too much thought until the end of the season, so don’t expect anything yet, but...

2) His brother A.J. will be a star: He’s a freshman now, but he delivered in some big-time moments of the game, not only with the game-deciding free throws at the end, but with his defense as well. He had a crucial block on Alexander in the closing seconds of the game that eventually set up the decisive foul shots. He has great leaping ability and a certain toughness to him. He might be young, but he’s not scared. Just like his older brother, he made some tough contested three-pointers and baskets. He only has one offer right now, from Manhattan, but that list is bound to grow as he grows older and develops. Standing 6-foot-4 and weighing only 155 pounds, he will eventually grow into his frame.

3) A Golden Era of this rivalry: I don’t think there has been a time where both the Gaels and Crusaders were so good at the same time. Just like earlier this year in football, the same seems to be coming true on the hardwood. There were at least 10 players on the court, between both teams, that have Division I offers or interest. For Iona Prep, Koureissi (Richmond), Alexander (American), and Wills (Stanford) have already made their college choices. Alexander is a tough, bruising forward inside and has solid footwork and post moves to go along with it. Koureissi, at 6-foot-8, can fill in either forward position. He’s fine as a four and can even help stretch the floor out, while adding an element of size to the three at the next level. Then there’s Wills, an athletic guard that was a few bad bounces away off acrobatic finishes from having a monster game. His potential to be a solid player in college is there. He is the most recent out of the three to commit, choosing Stanford over Villanova just before the holidays.

As for Stepinac, there are the Griffin brothers, but there are also Davis, Joel Soriano, and Matt Brand -- three others with Division I offers. No one has committed yet and there are a lot of local colleges in the mix. Ed Minaya and Xavier Wilson have also received interest from Division I programs.

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