St. Joseph Prep’s Kyle Thompson and Neumann-Goretti’s Ja’Quan Newton battle for a loose ball during the Catholic League boys’ basketball championship Feb. 27 at the Palestra.St. Joseph Prep’s Kyle Thompson and Neumann-Goretti’s Ja’Quan Newton battle for a loose ball during the Catholic League boys’ basketball championship Feb. 27 at the Palestra. (Photo by Kevin Cook)

 How to explain it?

Less than three minutes into the game, Neumann-Goretti High School had drilled a trio of three-point shots and was ahead, 11-0. St. Joseph’s Prep didn’t score its first points with 4:17 left in the first quarter.

In the end? The game somehow went into overtime, and as they have done against every Catholic League opponent over the past four years, the Saints of Neumann-Goretti prevailed, 59-57, for their fourth consecutive Catholic League basketball title.

“I don’t know,” said N-G coach Carl Arrigale as he watched his players huddle in celebration under the basket that had seen Ja’Quan Newton win the game with two free throws with 1.3 seconds remaining in overtime. “These guys have played so much basketball … you just hope they play their game and not let the (tense) situation bother them, and it never seems to.”

The impressively athletic and ultra-quick Saints (22-3 overall) have won every way possible for the past four years. And with that, the numbers are just absolutely staggering. During that span, the Saints are 70-0 in the league. In his 14 seasons, Arrigale has won eight Catholic League championships and his teams have been in the final 10 times.

Yet this time was arguably the toughest.

“They count by threes,” Arrigale said, referring to the Prep’s excellent marksmanship from three-point land. “They’re a great team. They play hard and they never go away. We knew they would be tough.

“Even when we went up early, they kept their composure and gave us everything they had. It was a really great game and it came down to us making one more play than they did.”

Every year, the result might be the same, but the N-G names are different. Two that have been on the stat sheet since the four-year streak began are forward/center Derrick Stewart and guard Billy Shank.

In their final Catholic League adventure, the former netted 13 points while the latter added five on a game-opening three-point swish and a driving bucket with a little more than one minute remaining in overtime that put the Saints in front, 57-52.

From that point, it again appeared that the Prep (20-5) was finished, but star junior Steve Vasturia (19 points, all in the second half), one of three Hawks in double figures (junior Miles Overton 16 points, senior Gene Williams 12), drained a spot-up three from NBA range with 54 seconds left, then converted a pair of free throws to tie the game at 57 with 33.9 remaining.

That’s when controversy reared its ugly head.

In an ultra-physical contest that seemed to be more like a rugby match than a basketball game and was for the most part handled by the officials like an episode of “Survivor,” an official called a foul on the Hawks with 1.3 seconds on the clock and SJP out of timeouts, emitting a palpable groan from the unbiased witnesses who had feared that one of the Catholic League’s all-time nail-biters might end on a poorly-timed whistle.

Newton, already the game’s brightest star en route to 21 points and 11 rebounds (not to be outdone by junior teammate John Davis’ 12 points and dozen rebounds), sank both freebies and a desperation heave by the Prep never had a chance.

The Saints marched onward. Another challenge … yet another win.