A mass exodus from the St. Raymond Ravens' program left them standing there looking at each other as the few survivors of the storm. They had lumps to take in a rebuilding process and they knew it.
"We knew it was gonna be hard after people transferred out; everyone looked at our team as a downgrade," said Okoro. "But it was a blessing in disguise. We played against guys like Jayvaughn Pinkston and got beat up every night, but we learned."
Okoro also joined his team in bowing out in the playoffs three years in a row and taking a spectator seat in the Fordham University bleachers while other players took home the MVP trophies. But on Sunday, the Ravens seized their moment with a 66-58 win over the Holy Cross Knights for the CHSAA championship and Okoro finally gripped what he'd seen others holding in years past - the CHSAA tournament MVP trophy. And it was all done in the Ravens' home borough of The Bronx.
"I feel like I'm on top of the world," said the Iowa State-bound senior, who scored a team high 21 points for the Ravens. "I've never been this happy in my life."
Dingle and Okoro knew this was their last shot. That's why the Holy Cross defense took no chances - the duo was surrounded whenever they touched the rock. Okoro got going early, while Dingle chose his spots in the second half. But having Division I-bound players on a team can slight its perceived depth - the towering forwards dished out a number of assists to teammates throughout the game.
"That's all about sacrifice [to win]," said Dingle. "There are other guys on this team besides [Okoro and I] and I have faith and trust in them."
Myron Hickman (8 points) and point guard Shane Rector (16 points) helped bring the Ravens out to a 19-12 lead toward the end of the first quarter, but depth is something Holy Cross knows about, too. Knights point guard Ed Roscigno's (12 points) free throws to end the first quarter and his bucket in the second quarter had a trilogy of three pointers from Will Davis (21 points) sandwiched between them - that spelled a 12-2 run that came along the way and gave Holy Cross a 27-25 lead. The Knights were only down a deuce at the half and kept it close all game, despite an obvious height disadvantage.
"I knew we had the advantage down low, but Holy Cross is a really good team," said Okoro. "They're one of the smartest teams in the league, they have a lot of seniors, and they've beat bigger teams before. We didn't overlook them because they were in the championship for a reason. We knew this wouldn't be a cakewalk."
It was nowhere as sweet as a cakewalk - it was a brawl. The undersized Knights outplayed St. Rays on many possessions, rebounding the ball on sheer hustle, effort, and will. Marquise Moore (13 points) was saddled with fouls in the first half, but exploited the fast break in the second and kept the Knights in the fight. Anthony Libroia cleaned up a miss and tied the game at 41, then tied it again in the fourth quarter at 48. But that lack of height slowly began to hinder Holy Cross. The Knights' bread and butter came in the form of transition offense, but in the half court set they ran into a snafu. Their reliance on deep jumpers was typical of small ball and would've been effective if the shots fell, but a handful of long threes from Libroia and a mid-range jumper from athletic, blue collar small forward Mareiga Clarke missed their mark. Most of what went inside was swatted by Okoro and with Dingle warming up on offense to have both of them cooking at once, the game began to slip away from Holy Cross. Their last chance to make a surge was swiped away when Hickman stole their inbounds pass at 26 seconds and was fouled. The ensuing free throws put the Ravens up 8 points and the aroma of a St. Rays victory began to seep through the walls of Rose Hill Gymnasium.
"This was my final chance to win and I was willing to do whatever it took," said Dingle, who scored 9 of his 11 points in the second half. "[St. Rays Head] Coach [Oliver Antigua] and I used to bump heads when I was younger, but he always challenged me to be the best. It paid off. Our school hasn't won [a championship since 2004], so we had to get this one."