The Holy Cross Knights lost to Christ the King twice this season, once by double digits at home, and once in double overtime after blowing a 13-point lead.
This Sunday, however, when it truly counted, Cross disposed of those same Royals, 56-48 at Fordham University, to win its first CHSAA city championship since 1968.
Undeterred by an up-and-down season that resulted in eight losses, Cross stormed through the CHSAA Intersectional Playoffs, upsetting Rice to reach the title game, the Knights' first in 30 years.
Although Holy Cross is known widely for the scoring prowess of its star senior Sylven Landesberg, the Flushing, NY school broke its city championship drought on Sunday behind merciless defense. Cross smothered Christ the King point guard Erving Walker, forcing him into numerous low-percentage shots that handcuffed the Royals to one-and-done possessions.
The two Queens schools traded buckets early, with Christ the King taking an 8-6 lead at the 5:04 mark behind five points from senior guard Sean Johnson. Holy Cross, however, then began to pressure the ball more, slowing down the fleet Royal offense. The Knights would concede just two points the rest of the quarter, just as their leader started to get comfortable on offense.
Landesberg and senior forward Tim Beinert hit a pair of free throws each, and then Landesberg dropped in a short baseline jumper off a drive to put Cross up 12-8. Sophomore center Roland Brown answered with a driving lay-in for the Royals at 2:25, but Landesberg and senior guard Blaise Ffrench nailed back-to-back threes to put Holy Cross ahead 18-10 after a quarter.
Christ the King leading scorer Ryan Pearson, however, would bring the Royals back into contention in the second period. After two Landesberg free throws put Cross up 20-12, Pearson, scoreless through the first quarter, reeled off nine straight points to give the defending champions a one-point lead with 4:14 until half.
The Royals stretched their lead to 26-23, but a pair of field goals by Ffrench late in the quarter brought the score to 27-27 heading into the break.
In the third, Holy Cross once again seized control on the strength of its defense, but this time, the Knights put points on the board without Landesberg's help. A three-pointer by Beinert gave Cross a 36-31 advantage with 3:41 to go in the frame.
Forward Anthony Martin answered with a triple for the Royals, but after a Christ the King defensive stop, Pearson missed a pair of free throws at the 1:27 mark that would've evened the score. Holy Cross guard Kayvon Roberts then knocked down a floater from the baseline, and the Knights led 38-34 at the end of the third despite Landesberg going scoreless in the period.
Christ the King suffered a scare early in the fourth quarter when Ffrench charged into Pearson and sent the George Mason-bound senior to the floor with an apparent groin injury. Though clearly reeling, Pearson eventually shook off the injury, and he canned a tough turnaround jumper with 5:57 remaining to trim the Cross lead to 39-38.
With the Knight advantage at 43-41 and 3:49 left, Holy Cross went on a run that proved crucial to its victory. Roberts calmly knocked down a three-pointer, and after a Christ the King miss, Tyshawn Russell converted a fast break lay-up off a Landesberg assist to stretch Cross' lead to seven. Two Landesberg free throws then made the score 50-41.
Walker, who had missed several threes in a row, finally got one to fall, bringing the Royals within six. Cross responded though, getting to the line and hitting 3-of-4 freebies to pull ahead 53-44 with 2:02 to go.
Pearson gave the Royals once final sliver of hope when he cashed a fast break pull-up with 1:11 remaining that cut the Cross lead to 53-48, but Walker missed on chances to slim the lead further in the final minute.
The mainly pro-Knight crowd rushed the floor when the buzzer sounded, and after an awards ceremony that named Landesberg the Tournament MVP, Holy Cross cut down the nets as city champions for the first time in nearly a half-century.
"I was looking at that trophy," said Landesberg after the game, "I saw Rice, St. Raymond. Holy Cross hadn't been (on) there in 40 years. Now that we're going to be up on that (trophy), we'll be there forever."
Holy Cross head coach Paul Gilvary later lauded his team's mentality. "These kids were very single-minded," said Gilvary. "I think we're better than the sum of our parts."
Both star and coach were also sure to note the defensive play on Walker by guards Ffrench and Russell. "I don't know if he was off," Landesberg said of Walker's play, "I have to give credit to Blaise."
Of Russell, Gilvary said, "Tyshawn was on the B team last year, now he's at Fordham, guarding Erving Walker and holding his own. That was one of the big reasons we won the game."
Russell, who replaced Ffrench on Walker after Ffrench committed his fourth foul, admitted to feeling jitters, but said that he was prepared for the spotlight that comes with guarding one of the best point guards in the city. "I was a little nervous, but when the time comes, you've got to step up," Russell said. "I knew that everybody was going to be looking at me when Blaise came out, and he did a great job of guarding (Walker)."
Ffrench added, "We knew we couldn't leave (Walker) open deep. I felt that we had him contained throughout the game."
Landesberg led all scorers with 24 points for Holy Cross, with Ffrench chipping in 12 as the only other Knight in double figures. Pearson paced Christ the King with 20, while Walker tallied 11 scattered points.
With the win, Holy Cross now advances to the AA Division New York State Federation Tournament.
As an added bonus for Cross, thanks to a Chaminade Flyers upset of the Class AA St. Dominic Bayhawks in the Long Island NSCHSAA championship, the Knights will get a bye into the Federation title game, since Chaminade is classified as an A team and therefore not eligible for the AA tournament.
The Federation title won't be contested until March 29 in Glens Falls, giving Holy Cross nearly three weeks off. Possibly enough time to soak up a victory that was 40 years in the waiting.
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