NYCHoops - Crusaders Climb Over Mt. Saint Michael
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Crusaders Climb Over Mt. Saint Michael

R.J. Davis & Malcolm Chimezie
R.J. Davis & Malcolm Chimezie (M. Libert)

Stepinac downs Mount to get back on right track  

BRONX, NY- Playing shorthanded because of the knee injury to wing A.J. Griffin '21 it's been a challenging run for Stepinac as of late as they have continuously been going up against some of the top competition they could find.

From a rough performance at home against St. Raymond to a loss up at the HoopHall Classic against one of Connecticut's best in East Catholic, the top-level performances haven't always been there for the Crusaders over the past couple of weeks.

Tuesday though was a chance to change that tide and get back on the right track when Stepinac went on the road to take on Mount St. Michael, and while it wasn't always easy the Crusaders led from start to finish behind the 33 points from R.J. Davis '20 to knock off the Mountaineers and get back on the winning track with a 67-57 win.

With Griffin out Stepinac head coach Pat Massaroni understands that the load can't just be on Davis's shoulders, it's got to be a true team effort if they want to maintain their way of play. It hasn't been easy in the five games since the Duke commits injury, but Massaroni believed heading into Tuesday's contest that everyone was understanding of what was needed at this point.

"The opportunity is there, it's been there for the last five games and it will be there for more games coming up," Massaroni explained. "Someone has to step up to the plate and to the table and I think today the guys really understood that."

Massaroni said that because out of the gate today it was his Stepinac team jumping out to a quick 11-0 lead and it wasn't just Davis who was leading the way, it was Luke Fizulich '20 and Justin Morety '20 each connecting on early three's, and it was Malcolm Chimezie '21 dominating the paint inside.

Leading by as much as 17-4 in the early going, the one disappointing thing for Massaroni was the lack of killer instinct to get a team down and put them away. He was hoping at that point to see his Crusaders take control, but instead Mount St. Michael hung around.

Ibrahim Wattara '20 was able to score 12 in the opening half, while Tyler Hawkins '22 was able to drain a couple of second quarter totes to see a once 13-point deficit early on be trimmed down to 35-30 at the half.

That was the disappointing part for Massaroni who said at the half he made sure to explain to his team that when the opportunity presents itself to put a team away, they need to do that, especially on the road.

"We talked to our guys about when you get it to 11 or 12 you need to maintain it or extend it and you can't let good teams like this stay in the game because that's when bad things happen," Massaroni said.

He was concerned that the longer the Mountaineers stayed close the more pressure it would put on his team down the stretch. Davis would try and give Stepinac a bit of a cushion again as he scored the first 9 points of the second half for the Crusaders but Mount was shooting it at a good percentage against the Crusaders zone, getting within 53-49 with 4:54 left to go in the game.

At that point though Chimezie would put back a big offensive rebound, and then Davis would attack on back to back possessions as Stepinac would up the lead back up to 9 with 2:38 to go as the Mountaineers three's that seemed to be falling in bunches for a good amount of the game stopped in the closing four minutes.

It may not have been the dominating Stepinac performance that it looked like it may have been in the first quarter, but when plays needed to be made Davis was there to make them as he had 33 points, while Chimezie had a double-double inside with 10 points and 12 rebounds in what would ultimately be a 67-57 road victory for the Crusaders.

For Mount St. Michael they got 20 points from Hawkins, with Wattara adding 19 in the loss that saw them claw back to get the game close late, but they never were able to get over the top in the defeat.

Davis may have been the high scorer but coming out of the game on Tuesday, Massaroni was most happy about the efforts he got from everyone else feeling as if this was one of the first times since Griffin's injury that the team as a whole stepped up, followed the game plan, and rose up to the challenge put in front of them.

He hopes this is a game they can now build on as its all CHSAA play the rest of the way for Stepinac, a team that Chimezie says is still focused on one thing, getting to the top of the mountain and bringing home the league title.

"We are going to prove ourselves on the court each and every time out," Chimezie confidently said after the win. "We are hungry and we are chip chasing."