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If you’ve seen Stepinac play a couple times this season, you’ll know that freshman R.J. Davis plays well beyond his years. He’s been one of the Crusaders’ leading scorers from the beginning of the season.
On Friday night, in front of a standing-room only crowd in White Plains against rival Iona Prep, the early legend of the freshman grew a little bigger.
Davis scored 17 points, knocked down 11 of 12 free throws, and completed an excellent 3-point play in the final minute to help put away Iona Prep in a 55-50 victory.
Oh, and he was sick.
“I was just replenishing fluids, eating, and trying to get healthy and ready to play,” Davis said. “It felt good to contribute, hit some game-winning free throws, and help my team win. It feels good to beat our rivals.”
The Crusaders took the lead in the first quarter and never gave it back, building a 10-point lead late in the third quarter. The game came to a screeching halt in the fourth quarter when neither team hit a shot in a four-minute span.
“I thought our physicality stepped up a notch to match them. They’re tough to beat anywhere you play them and we didn’t look good at times, but a win is a win,” Stepinac coach Pat Massaroni said. “They slow you down and they’re methodical.”
Iona made its move late in the fourth to get back in the game with a Nick Brennen shot in the lane and then Jacob Hargraves hit a basket to cut the Stepinac lead to 45-42 with 2:13 to go. After Davis hit a pair of free throws, Soulemayne Koureissi drained a 3-pointer for the Gaels to cut the deficit to just two.
After Iona Prep forced a turnover, the biggest defensive play of the game came from Stepinac’s Alan Griffin. The junior swingman blocked an Iona shot and then forced a jump ball on the second attempt to give the Crusaders possession back.
“I’m not sure what credit Alan will get, I don’t know what his final stat line was but he rebounded like an animal tonight,” Massaroni said. “And that defensive play was just huge.”
Iona pressured the ensuing in-bounds play, but Davis caught the pass while running up the court, blew by the defender and made a hard charge to the hoop, finishing in traffic with a foul. He knocked down the free throw to put Stepinac back up 50-45 in the biggest offensive play of the night. Davis scored 11 of his 17 points in the fourth. He also finished with six rebounds despite being one of the smaller guys on the court.
“We’ve been putting in a lot of hard work in the gym and at practice,” Davis said. “We’ve been practicing how to execute and making sure we close it out at the end like tonight.”
Jorden Means and Xavier Wilson each had nine points and three assists for Stepinac in the victory.
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Iona’s only lead was early in the game and their last lead was at 8-7. The Gaels will probably want that four-minute scoreless stretch back in the fourth quarter, but either way Iona played tough as usual. Bryce Wills had 11 points, eight rebounds, four assists, and two blocks. Koureissi led the Gaels with 13 points and seven rebounds in the loss.
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“We like to get out and run and they slowed that down tonight,” Massaroni said. “When we did get out and run, Wills was up on that glass taking balls left and right. We held them to 50 points, so even though they held us in check, we played pretty well defensively too. It was ugly out there.”
The win was great for Stepinac because it meant a season sweep of Iona Prep, which doesn’t come often, and is always a big notch in the belt in the area’s best rivalry. Outside the rivalry, it puts Stepinac in a good position league-wise with the tiebreaker of the Gaels.
“It’s huge, but we probably have the toughest remaining schedule out of everybody,” Massaroni said. “We have to do a really good job to keep this lead in the league because Hayes is right there and had a big win tonight over St. Ray’s and they’re the only team that holds the tiebreaker over us.”