N-G tops SJ Prep in OT for Catholic League crown

Posted: February 28, 2012

DERRICK STEWART tried to express his emotions and, for a while, didn't experience a whole bunch of success.

That was entirely understandable, considering the amazing circumstances, and that every possible thought was bouncing around inside his head.

This cliché. That cliché. This cliché. That cliché.

Then the words came tumbling out of his mouth. And when he finished, he flashed the brightest smile, as if he knew his last attempt had been pretty darn good.

"I feel like an astronaut," Stewart said. "Like I just landed on the moon."

Close enough.

Stewart is a 6-6 senior forward/center for Ss. Neumann-Goretti High and, with classmate/wing guard Billy Shank, he now boasts four consecutive Catholic League championships.

Just that feat would be impressive enough. But there's also this: The Saints lost no CL games during that time frame, and their winning streak stands at 70, counting the regular season and playoffs.

No. 70 was no doubt the toughest. It was earned Monday night at the Palestra, in front of a full-house crowd that bubbled nonstop with emotion. Not only was overtime required, victory wasn't assured until the very last instant, when a desperation trey did not come close and the Saints' subs exploded off the bench to envelop the starters.

The final score: N-G 59, St. Joseph's Prep 57.

Stewart totaled 13 points, six rebounds and three blocks, and in time he won't bust chops about owning four titles to his brother's two. Danny, also a forward, was a star in the 2009 and 2010 seasons and now plays for Rider, where Derrick will again be his teammate.

"Well, I did get my four rings, but he got two with 1,000 points, so I guess we're even," Derrick said. "I just know we're very happy in this family."

So is everyone associated with the Saints, beginning with coach Carl Arrigale.

"All I know is, this gets harder and harder," he said, exhaling for effect. "I knew just coming down here that we'd be in for a good one. The target on our back is so big. Plus, the Prep is very good, as good as any team we've played all year.

"But, of course, I have a lot of faith in my kids. What it came down to, really, was this: We made one more play than they did."

Prep junior combo guard Stephen Vasturia, a Notre Dame commit, converted a one-and-one with 33.9 seconds showing in OT, creating a tie at 57-57.

N-G decided to hold, and junior point guard Hanif Sutton did the honors, out near halfcourt and the scorers' table. As the time melted away, he exploded toward the hoop and curled up a layup at the west-end basket. No good. On the right side, junior wing guard Ja'Quan Newton grabbed the rebound while simultaneously trying to guide the ball back up.

Tweet! There were 1.3 seconds left.

On the Prep's bench, complaints were loud and numerous. Coach William "Speedy" Morris and his assistants were not expressing doubt that contact had occurred, only that that call had been made at that juncture.

Newton strolled to the line, having already scored 19 points. Also having been a prominent hero, in the same venue, when N-G captured last year's crown.

He hit both shots, creating bedlam among the N-G supporters right behind that basket.

"I was very confident going to the line," Newton said. "This wasn't my first time in this kind of situation. Big-time players make big-time plays. That's me. That's what I did.

"When I shot the first one, my heart was racing a little fast. Once the ball rolled in, I was fine for the second one. I all-netted that one."

Special sights were everywhere in the minutes after game's end.

First, some of the players ran into the stands to join with the students and, who knows, maybe steal a kiss or three from the cheerleaders. An instant after Arrigale was handed the title plaque, out by midcourt, by hoops moderator Joe Sette, Stewart and Newton thieved it and ran back toward the rooters, holding it aloft while screaming.

Soon, everyone was yelling, "Four-PEAT! Four-PEAT!" Then it was time for the players, managers and coaches to take turns snipping the net. The last two guys to wield scissors were Shank, then Stewart.

"I knew Prep was going to come out hard, with great intensity, and that if we didn't match it we could lose the game," Stewart said. "We had some defensive breakdowns, but we stuck with it and did what we had to do."

Said Sutton: "Teams have been coming after us all year. I expected it tonight more than ever. And we got that."

Arrigale, who played for Morris in the '83 and '84 seasons at Penn Charter, now boasts eight CL titles in 14 seasons. Morris' CL total is also eight, counting six at Roman Catholic from '69 through '80 and two at the Prep in '03 and '04. Morris has three title-game losses to his student's two. Arrigale leads the series between the two, 13-7.

Throughout, this game was filled with interesting developments.

Vasturia, the coaches' MVP, finished the first half scoreless and 0-for-7 from the floor. But the Hawks were down by only 26-22 because junior Miles Overton (11) and senior Gene Williams combined for 19 points. However, Overton landed awkwardly on a missed trey in the last half-minute and his status appeared to be iffy, at best.

He came back onto the court before his teammates and tried some shots. Then he trotted back and forth across the court, performing tests for the trainer. He hit an early three, but then incurred his fourth personal. Luckily for the Prep, Vasturia found his rhythm with eight, third-quarter points.

The score after regulation was 48-48. Williams created those numbers with the first of two free throws with 16.9 remaining. Off an inbound play at 4.3, Newton missed a 12-foot, off-balance jumper along the right baseline.

N-G scored the first five points of OT and the last three were provided by John Davis, who somehow made the layup, despite getting absolutely plastered, then knuckleballed home the free throw.

Newton, meanwhile, was part of a spectacular sequence. Finding no one open nearby, Sutton lofted a crazy inbound pass high to the midcourt area. Newton outjumped Williams, but saved it right to him and Gene embarked for what he likely figured would be an easy layup. Pow! Newtown arrived at the very last instant and blocked the layup, then Shank scored at the other end in transition.

That made it 57-52. Vasturia answered with close to a 30-foot trey and tied the score with his aforementioned free throws after N-G was guilty of a turnover.

Newton had 21 points and 11 rebounds. John Davis mixed 12 with 12. Sutton and sixth man La'Quan Coaxum played dogged defense on Vasturia (7-for-18, 19 points). Also reaching double figures for the Hawks were Overton (16) and Williams (12).

A few minutes before midnight, the Palestra was pretty much empty, save for the cleanup crew.

One guy came walking through the stands, west to east on the north side, and in each hand he held basketballs. One of the Nerf variety and the other a real one.

"I found these in the stands," he said. With that, he held up the real one and said, "This one right here, it might be the money ball."

Online high school coverage at philly.com/rally.

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