By Dylan Butler
His team is the tournament’s top seed, was playing at home and had defeated Archbishop Molloy twice during the regular season. But first-year Royals coach Joe Arbitello was scared to death about facing the Stanners in the CHSAA Brooklyn/Queens Diocesan semifinals Wednesday night.
“I always thought they were the second best team in Brooklyn/Queens because I thought they had a player in every position,” Arbitello said. “And it’s hard to beat a good team three times in a season.”
In a thrilling display of attacking basketball, Christ the King defeated fourth-seeded Archbishop Molloy, 87-85, to advance to Friday night’s championship game against third-seeded Xaverian, which crushed Bishop Loughlin in the other semifinal.
The nightcap was a scintillating match-up between two of the top open-court scorers in the city: Christ the King’s Sean Johnson and Molloy’s Russ Smith. On Tuesday, Johnson was named MVP of the CHSAA ‘AA’ league in a vote of the league coaches, while Smith earned a spot on the All-CHSAA first team.
Smith was sensational for Molloy (15-10), tying a career-high with 47 points, scoring in an array of ways. But it seemed every time Smith scored a big basket, Johnson had the response.
When Smith banked in a 3-pointer with 2:34 left in the fourth quarter, Johnson came down and scored on a layup. Another 3-pointer by Smith cut the Stanners deficit to 83-81 with 53 seconds left, but Johnson then had an old-fashioned 3-point play.
Smith did take some bad shots, especially when he was forced to take jumpers after picking up two early fouls. His worst decision came with an ill-advised 3-point attempt with 19 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Smith might have outscored Johnson, who had 33 points, but the Royals (22-3) will be playing in the final on Friday night and that’s all the CK senior guard cares about.
“I really don’t care how many points he had, as long as we come up with the ‘W,’” Johnson said. “It really don’t matter to me.”
Lost in the offensive explosion between Smith and Johnson was the best performance of Corey Edwards’ young career. The sophomore point guard scored a career-high 21 points, getting to the basket at will.
“At practice, I was working on getting to the basket and finishing,” Edwards said. “Coach told me that Russ doesn’t play defense at all, he just wanders around the floor. Luckily he got four fouls so he started playing tentative and I was able to get to the basket, dish the ball off and make opportunities for my teammates.”
Said Arbitello: “If that’s an indication of what we’ve got for the next two years, I’m a pretty happy guy.”
Ernest Rouse scored 10 of his 12 points in the third quarter as the Stanners took a 65-62 lead into the fourth.
The Royals came out in a 2-1-2 zone and immediately went on a 12-2 run, capped by a Johnson 3-pointer from the top of the key to give CK a 74-67 lead with 5:38 left. The Stanners got as close as one, 76-75, following another triple by Smith, but Maurice Barrow (11 points) was fouled on a putback and completed the 3-point play to extend the Royals’ lead.
“Every team has a strength and ours is go, go, go,” Arbitello said. “Molloy took some quick shots in the zone and we were able to rebound the ball and go, which is what we want to do every game.”
While Christ the King is excited about having a chance to avenge a loss to Xaverian at home two weeks ago, Molloy isn’t discouraged. Smith had a remarkable scoring night, Ryan Dillon (12 points) was deadly from downtown, Rouse was a good complimentary scorer and Jin Hong played one of his most complete games of the season for Molloy, which will play in the intersectional quarterfinals next week against an opponent to be determined.
“We’re playing good,” legendary Molloy coach Jack Curran said. “We could beat anybody. We could have beaten them tonight.”