By Dylan Butler
It’s easy to point out what the Xaverian boys’ basketball team doesn’t have, specifically size and star power. But the Clippers play hard and play for each other. Sure, there’s no blue chippers on the roster, but they’re all blue-collar players.
That’s why Xaverian will play top-seeded Christ the King in the CHSAA Brooklyn/Queens Diocesan final Friday night, why the Clippers crushed Bishop Loughlin, 59-39, in the semifinals Wednesday after losing both regular-season meetings.
“All five of us are in there rebounding,” Justin Exum said. “We knew we had to do it. We just play hard ‘D,’ we made our shots and here we are, in the championship.”
One sequence in the third quarter perfectly tells the story of Xaverian’s work ethic. Despite giving up three inches, Yandell Denis hustled back to block Trevon Hamlet’s nonchalant layup attempt midway through the frame.
The 6-foot-3 junior then converted a 3-point play and drew a charge on the other end. All the hustle plays -- the rebounds, loose balls and charges -- went to Bishop Loughlin in a 55-39 victory two weeks ago.
“Yandell probably typifies what this team is about,” Xaverian coach Jack Alesi said. “He’s a 6-foot-3 kid who plays center for us. We said early on in the year he’d have to do this, but he sacrificed playing his normal position and he takes on all the big guys and does it without a complaint.”
But in the Brooklyn/Queens semifinals Wednesday, Xaverian outworked a reeling and depleted Loughlin team that is missing star junior forward Jayvaughn Pinkston, who has been ruled academically ineligible and is out indefinitely.
While Xaverian (14-12) will play for the Brooklyn/Queens title for the first time since 2005, last year’s champion Bishop Loughlin (15-10) will need to shake off a two-game losing streak as it heads to the CHSAA Class AA intersectional quarterfinals next week.
“I have to basically play faster than everyone and smarter because I’m only 6-foot-3,” Denis said. “
I’ve got to take charges, do all the dirty work.”
For a second straight game, the Lions guards struggled and forwards Hamlet and Rasi Jenkins didn’t play hard. While he wasn’t available for comment after the game, Bishop Loughlin coach Rudy King used the word “soft” to describe his team several times during the course of the game.
Xaverian led 9-4 after one quarter and 20-12 at the half. The Lions slowly chipped away until a 15-2 run capped by a Rasheem King layup early in the fourth quarter gave Xaverian an 18-point lead.
“We thought, offensively, we’d be fine in the game, but we wanted to give them a potpourri of defenses,” Alesi said. “We wanted to show different looks, play differently. … We wanted to really keep them off balance with our defense.”
Loughlin got as close as 12, 46-34, on a 3-pointer by Branden Frazier, but the Lions missed a pair of one-and-one bonus free throws and Xaverian, while not perfect, did go 7-of-12 from the line in the next 90 seconds to put the game away.
Exum scored a game-high 15 points and Denis added 11 for Xaverian, the only team in the city to have wins against Rice and Christ the King on its résumé. Antoine Brown had 10 points for Bishop Loughlin, which is playing its worst basketball of the season heading into the intersectional playoffs.
“We know what we have ahead of us,” Alesi said.
“We’re not unrealistic about it. We don’t think we’re the team to beat in the city, but we like it that way. We like to be the team that’s taking shots at everybody. We feel good about the way we’re playing.”