By Zachary Braziller
This was one month and one day ago, after another lackluster performance, by his team and center Stephen Nwaukoni. John Ulmer’s Thomas Edison boys’ basketball team has just been shellacked by Cardozo, a 74-53 loss that ended any hope of the Inventors winning the Queens AA crown.
Close to 45 minutes after the embarrassing setback, Ulmer was still seething when he ripped into his juniors, Nwaukoni and Eddie Egharevba, calling their play soft. Regarding Nwaukoni, who had just one point against the Judges’ center Ryan Rhoomes, the coach said, “Rhoomes beat my big man up tonight – beat him up on both ends of the court.”
The anecdote is worth remember considering Edison is still very much alive, one of the final eight Class AA teams standing, in large part because of Nwaukoni.
The 6-foot-6 center scored 17 points, grabbed 23 rebounds, blocked two shots and added four assists as the 12th-seeded Inventors shocked No. 5 Wings Academy, 66-64, at Bronx Regional HS Tuesday evening in the second round of the playoffs.
“After Ulmer said that, I kept thinking, ‘Yeah, he’s kind of right,’” he recalled. “I’m not going to give up.”
With leading scorer Isiah Stokley and Egharevba battling foul woes, Nwaukoni made his presence felt. He blocked shots and changed others. He was a demon on the glass and productive on the offensive end.
“He was an absolute monster out there,” Ulmer said. “He can do that every game. He’s starting to realize his potential.”
Stokley scored 15 points and Stephon Hodges had 11 points and four assists, Jarick Duncan eight and Kris Owens seven. Ronald Baker paced Wings (20-6) with 23 points.
It had been 20 days since Edison (19-8) last played an official game – a 65-53 loss to Forest Hills in the Queens borough semifinals – but that didn’t mean the Jamaica, Queens school spent that time resting.. Actually, it was an important period of time, Ulmer said, when he started to see everyone working as one.
“It’s been a better team environment lately,” Ulmer said. “The whole acting more grown up.”
After Edison’s 40-27 lead was erased with two minutes remaining, the Inventors didn’t fall apart under pressure. Hodges hit a pair of free throws and they controlled the ball. Overall, the Inventors displayed the kind poise Ulmer has sought. They turned the ball over just 13 times against the Wings’ pressure.
“We gave it our everything,” Nwaukoni said.
“We didn’t put our heads down, we kept on fighting, and now we get Boys & Girls in a rematch of last year and the beginning of this year,” Ulmer said, referring to Saturday’s Class AA quarterfinal at St. John’s University Saturday afternoon.
“Hopefully we come out stronger this time. We’ve learned what we have to do to be a better team. The guys want it.”
As for Wings, another long offseason looms. One year after falling to Campus Magnet in the second round, coach Billy Turnage’s club is out early.
There were built-in excuses this time. Leading scorer Dashaun Wiggins suffered a severely sprained right ankle over the weekend and didn’t dress. Yet, Turnage didn’t see his players with the right mindset anyway. They were passive and lacking intensity. They were soft defensively.
“We felt all year long that this year’s team was better than last year’s team,” the third-year coach said. “Then we bow out in the same round. How much better were we actually?”