3rd straight undefeated season

John Knebels
Sports Columnist

SS. Neumann-Goretti’s basketball team has come and been replaced by … nobody. And since all but one of their standout players are underclassmen, one gets the distinct feeling that the Saints won’t be replaced by anyone else anytime soon.

Despite clanking free throw after free throw to keep its opponent alive, Neumann-Goretti defeated Archbishop Carroll, 59-55, Monday night at the legendary Palestra to capture its third consecutive Catholic League boys’ championship. The last time any Catholic League program achieved such a streak was when Roman Catholic seized six straight from 1989 through 1994.

History was precisely what Neumann-Goretti (21-4 overall) was trying to make, and since they became the first-ever team to finish undefeated three consecutive years, their quest was successful. Winners of seven of the last 11 league titles and the defending PIAA Class AAA state champion, Neumann-Goretti has won a record 54 consecutive league games. {{more}}

“We lost a lot of guys last year and some wondered what kind of a team we would have,” said Neumann-Goretti’s Carl Arrigale, fast becoming one of the most successful coaches in Catholic League history. “We didn’t play great tonight, especially with our free-throw shooting, but these guys find a way to win.”

In a game that lacked crispness but was still decently entertaining, only five Neumann-Goretti players scored points. Senior Lamin Fulton and sophomore John Davis each netted 16. Freshman Ja’Quan Newton, arguably one of the most poised players of the game, contributed 13 while teammates Derrick Stewart and Billy Shank added seven apiece.

If not for the Saints’ mystifying incompetence at the line (18 for 37 overall; 10 for 23 in the fourth quarter), Neumann-Goretti might have won more handily. After missing nine of 13 free throws, Fulton took full responsibility for his uncharacteristic showing.

“That (alarming statistic) starts with me,” the St. Peter’s College-bound Fulton said. “It almost cost us, but we ended up making the shots when we had to. We’ve been doing that all year.”

Staring at a 47-38 deficit in the fourth quarter, a Carroll comeback appeared dubious. Neumann-Goretti’s defense was stout, offense decently fluid, energy palpable and offensive rebounding positively dominant.

But time and again, Neumann-Goretti missed key free throws, and the opportunistic Patriots obliged by trimming their deficit to 56-55 with 12 seconds left. Just like when they needed late heroics to defeat Roman Catholic by 47-46 in the semifinal, the Saints suddenly seemed beatable.

Contrary to their earlier problems from the charity stripe, the Saints upped their lead to 58-55 with 11 seconds left when Davis drained two free throws and then, following a three-point miss by Carroll, clinched the victory when Stewart hit one of two free throws with 1.1 seconds remaining.

“We did some good things, but our offense wasn’t balanced,” said an obviously disappointed Carroll coach Paul Romanczuk. “They hurt us a lot with offensive boards. That was key.”

Carroll’s offense centered on senior Juan’ya Green, who scored 30 of his team’s 55 points and at times seemed to be watched -as opposed to joined – by his teammates. Senior Tracy Peal helped out with 12 points before fouling out late in the fourth quarter. Jay Donovan scored seven and Yosef Yacob added six. It was the first time in recent memory that only four Patriots reached the scoring column.

When the final buzzer sounded, Neumann-Goretti resembled a team that was simultaneously pleased and disappointed.

“It’s great to win the championship,” said Fulton, “but we made it harder than it should have been. We’ll learn from this.”

Taking into account Neumann-Goretti’s growing legacy, that’s a scary thought.

John Knebels can be reached at jknebs@aol.com.