Stepinac and Iona Prep, bitter Westchester rivals, didn’t meet on the basketball court last season because the Crusaders moved up the CHSAA “AA” division while Iona won the CHSAA “A” state championship. It’s safe to say the sophomores on this year’s varsity squad wouldn’t know what to expect when these two teams meet.
They know now.
In an atmosphere worthy of the rivalry, Stepinac (7-1)outplayed and outhustled Iona Prep on both ends of the floor to the tune of a 70-64 victory led by sophomore Demarcus Miller’s 20 points off the bench. Not to be outdone, Iona Prep’s super sophomore Matt Ryan poured in 21 points.
“This is like a Christmas present,” Miller said. “If I don’t get anything under the tree, this will good enough for me, it feels so great because some of us haven’t faced Iona before.”
Miller came off the bench to give the Crusaders an athletic boost and immediately made an impact. He scored nine points in the second quarter and nine more in the fourth. When he was in the game, he was usually matched up with his fellow sophomore, the 6-foot-6 Ryan.
“Matt and I have been playing against each other our whole lives and his jump shot has been lethal since like fifth grade,” Miller said. “He’s a great player and I like playing against him.”
Stepinac took control early in the game, but Iona kept pace by hitting some tough shots. Ryan hit a catch-and-release three with someone in his face in the second quarter and kept the Gaels in it at the half with a turnaround 3-pointer from 27 feet to send Iona into the half down 33-30.
While Iona’s hot shooting kept them in it, it was Stepinac’s defense that was the difference. The Crusaders forced 12 first-half turnovers and 25 in the game. Stepinac took care of the ball too. They only turned it over once in the first half.
“Defense and rebounding is what is going to win games for us,” Monmouth-bound Josh James said. “It created transition, which is what we want to do.”
James, a 6-foot-1 point guard, grabbed a game-high eight rebounds in the game and scored 17 points for Stepinac. He also dished out four assists. Miller had four offensive rebounds for the Crusaders.
“He’s a tough kid and has a winning attitude,” James said of Miller. “He plays extremely hard and it showed tonight.”
Iona took a 38-37 lead, its only lead of the game, with 4:45 left in the third quarter after a Ryan steal and pass to Isaiah Ice (15 points, five rebounds, three assists). Stepinac answered with a 7-0 run to retake control.
Stepinac eventually opened up an 11-point lead and controlled the rest of the game. Ryan added a 3-pointer, which cut it to five points, but Stepinac hit its free throws late. Ryan also had seven rebounds and three assists. He shot 5-of-12 from 3-point range.
“I thought we played well, they just played better,” Iona coach Vic Quirolo said. “We looked a little unpolished, but this was a good learning experience for some of our younger guys.”
Naim Thomas returned from a foot injury for Stepinac. He had 12 points and five rebounds. Walter King has 10 points, and Andrew Murray added eight points.
Iona Prep will face city rival, New Rochelle, tomorrow at the Rucker Christmas Classic at Wadleigh High School. Stepinac will head into the Christmas break feeling good about a win over its top rival.
Email John Malone at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MSGV_Malone