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BOYS BASKETBALL: Two Epic Rematches Highlight Philadelphia Catholic League Semifinals

By Rich Flanagan, 02/20/24, 10:45AM EST


Photos/Videos: Zack Beavers, Rich Flanagan, Kathy Leister, Ryan Nix & Krystal Williams

By: Rich Flanagan

PHILADELPHIA – With 7.9 seconds remaining, Joe Zeglinski already had the exact play in mind.

The Archbishop Ryan head coach recalled running the play in the fourth game of the season to secure a win and felt the same scenario would play out here. It’s one thing to have players who have been in this situation before but it’s even more important to have ones who have executed considering the shot could send the team to the Palestra.

Zeglinski drew it up on his clipboard and the Raiders turned the depiction into fruition and, metaphorically, vindication.

“It gives us two options where if they all collapsed on Thomas [Sorber], Darren [Williams] would be wide open and that’s what we thought they would do,” Zeglinski said. “If they all came up top, we had the lob to Thomas as the second option. Jaden [Murray] did a great job setting the screen and Darren found the space to hit a big-time shot.”

Williams caught the ball at the right elbow, turned his body and nailed the game-winning jumper to lift Archbishop Ryan over St. Joe’s Prep, 49-47 in the Philadelphia Catholic League quarterfinals. The victory sent the Raiders to the league semifinals for the second time in three years and sixth time under Zeglinski. Williams, the 6-foot-4 Florida Gulf Coast commit, had a game-high 22 points on 9-for-16 shooting with four three-pointers while Sorber, the 6-9 Georgetown commit and Philadelphia Catholic League Co-MVP, dominated inside with 17 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks. The Raiders used this very same play to beat Riverside Baptist (Md.) in the Gonzaga Classic in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 9.

Darren Williams hits the game-winning shot to send Archbishop Ryan to the PCL Semifinals at the Palestra - PSD Video by Zack Beavers

It was vindication as it lifted the Raiders back to the semifinals following a one-year absence, and gave Williams and Sorber, starters on the 2022 Archbishop Ryan team that lost in the league title game, one final shot at a coveted championship. The Raiders will face Neumann-Goretti, the team it fell to two years ago, in the semifinals on Wednesday at the Cathedral of College Basketball and will have the best inside-outside tandem the league has to offer. Sorber leads the team at 19 ppg, 11.3 rpg and 4.8 bpg and can’t be stopped with one defender. 

The Hawks sent double teams on a regular basis and tried to force Sorber to give up, but when they did Williams (17.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg) made them pay, as he did with two seconds left in the game.

Williams has a pure form and an incredibly quick release on his shot leading to 78 three-pointers this season, and while those qualities have made him successful since entering the starting lineup as a sophomore, the attention his fellow Division I big man demands has potentially helped him even more.

“We know our guards have to step up, especially down the stretch of games, because teams want to take away layups for Thomas and double him,” Zeglinski said. “Darren has been hitting big shots like that since his sophomore year and we have all the trust in the world in him to hit those. It frees Darren up more for one-on-ones off ball screens as defenses don't want to hedge off Thomas and it gives him more space than he would normally have.”

Archbishop Ryan senior Darren Williams #2 - PSD Photo by Zack Beavers

Having Williams and Sorber - the league leader with 17 double-doubles - makes the Raiders a threat to advance to their fifth Philadelphia Catholic League championship game in program history but add in how the 6-6 Murray, who “has been a really consistent player,” as Zeglinski describes, has grown and matured since playing in his first pair of games at the Palestra as a sophomore and vindication is still very much the mantra of this team.

Murray (7.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg) posted eight points and eight rebounds in the quarterfinals, and fellow seniors in Gannon University commit Rocco Morabito and Ryan Everett have played well down the stretch to put Archbishop Ryan in this position.

This is the third time the Raiders and the Saints are meeting in the semifinals since 2016 and the likes of Izaiah Brockington, Quade Green, Matiss Kulackovskis, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, Gediminias Mokseckas, Jordan Hall and Hysier Miller have been notable names in those matchups.

Zeglinski scored 16 points against Roman Catholic in his lone trip to the Palestra in 2006 as the Raiders fell in the semifinals, and his experience as a player combined with his plethora of berths in the semifinals as a head coach have trickled down to his team, most notable Williams and Sorber who have experience of their own. Those two-time First Team selections are leading the way and ensuring this group is primed for success on Wednesday.

“What they’ve been sharing in the last couple days is we need to be together and not let the environment take over our emotions,” Zeglinski said. We have to be laser focused, be in the moment and continue to play together. Darren and Thomas, our one-two punch, will get the focus but guys have been stepping up.”

Neumann-Goretti head coach Carl Arrigale is gracing the floor for the 22nd time in the PCL semifinals - PSD Photo by Ryan Nix

While Zeglinski has propelled his alma mater to six semifinal appearances, Carl Arrigale has guided Neumann-Goretti to 22 semifinal berths during his illustrious tenure, and this run may be one of his best when considering the circumstances leading up to Wednesday night. He’s the Philadelphia Catholic League all-time leader in titles (12) and is in the midst of a déjà vu scenario with a slew of injuries that has plagued the Saints throughout the season. First Team All-Catholic pick and St. Joe’s commit Khaafiq Myers went down with a torn ACL against Archbishop Wood on Jan. 11 and was lost for the season. Hofstra commit Amir Williams missed five games with a shoulder injury that is still bothering him while Stephon Ashley-Wright missed two games and Torrey Brooks did not play against Conwell-Egan. Finally, Larenzo Jerkins hurt his ankle in the regular season finale.

Luckily, the Saints had nearly a week of rest before their quarterfinal matchup with Archbishop Carroll and they pulled out an 89-83 win on Friday night to get to this point, and furthermore, Arrigale’s team has depth it hasn’t seen in years.

“We have a little saying, ‘One man's misfortune is another one’s pot of gold,’” Arrigale said. “Unfortunately for Khaafiq, when he went down, it gave an opportunity for Keon [Long-Mtume] and DeShawn [Yates] to get more playing time. When Amir went down, it opened up even more minutes for everybody. It’s been the ultimate next man up type of team, and it’s made us a little stronger and tougher. We would love to have everybody playing.”

Arrigale is no stranger to having starters and rotational pieces miss time during playoff runs. During his first postseason as head coach in 1999, Second Team All-Catholic Cantrell Fletcher suffered a sprained ankle and only played six minutes in an opening round loss to West Catholic. The following season, starting power forward Spencer Hill hurt his knee and his backup, Hakim Haynes, had a fracture in his shin. Haynes came back as then St. John Neumann lost to Roman Catholic in the league final. Arrigale won his first Philadelphia Catholic League title in 2001 but without Fletcher, who suffered a torn ACL in his right knee in the quarterfinals. Brandon Brigman broke his left hand but played through it during that title push. Just last year, Myers was limited to 17 minutes in the title game against the Cahillites after reaggravating an ankle injury that had hampered him all season.

Arrigale has never made excuses and his unprecedented success speaks to that. His teams are always adequately prepared and this one will be no exception.

“We’re no stranger to it,” Arrigale said. “It happened a lot to me early in my career, and you learn to move on and get the guys who are capable of playing ready. At the end of the day, it’s still a bunch of high school kids playing out there and they’re going to react differently to different situations.”

Jerkins, who “was compromised a little bit but he’s a tough dude and he fought through it,” as Arrigale noted, spearheaded the win against the Patriots with 26 points, nine rebounds and three blocks. The 6-6 West Chester University commit, who is avg. 15.4 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 2.2 spg and 1.5 ppg, went 8-11 from the floor and 10-11 from the free throw line as the Saints shot an impressive 34-59 (54.2%) on the night. After sitting out all of last season due to PIAA transfer rules, Jerkins, who has 12 double-doubles on the year, will finally get his shot to play at the Palestra and Arrigale wanted nothing more than to give his First Team All-Catholic forward that opportunity.

“I felt pressure even as his coach because of how much he means to me and the team and what he went through last year,” Arrigale said.  “I felt a lot of pressure and when we had a bunch of injuries pile up, I said, ‘We have to get back so this kid can experience this.’ It’s part of the reason why he chose Neumann when he moved back into the city and every kid wants the opportunity to play there and get a chance to win a championship.”

Neumann-Goretti vs. Archbishop Carroll - PSD PCL Quarterfinal Highlights by Ryan Nix

Yates put together another strong performance with 18 points on 8-9 shooting and Long-Mtume hit two three-pointers on his way to 14 points. Brooks, who is avg. 14.4 ppg and has made 49 three-pointers, had 12 points and seven assists, and Williams looked to be back to his old self with 10 points, four rebounds, three assists, and two blocks. This is a vastly different team from the one that faced the Raiders in the 2022 final as Myers is out, Rober Wright III is playing at Montverde Academy (Fla.), and Masud Stewart, Aamir Hurst, Bruce Smith, and Sultan Adewale have all graduated. Williams was on the team but did not play in the title game while Myers starred alongside Wright. Myers will not play on Wednesday but Arrigale emphasized how he has been indispensable to the team’s preparation.

“Khaafiq has been good with that and taking on the leader role still,” Arrigale said. “We talk about how in that place you have to be together. You can’t be disconnected and win in that building. It’s everybody fighting for one cause and that’s the message I’ve been able to get across to my teams.”

The first matchup of the Philadelphia Catholic League semifinals features two teams who haven’t met at the Palestra since 1999, which was the last time Father Judge made a trip to the hallowed arena. Chris Roantree was a starter of that team as Father Judge was at the tail end of three consecutive semifinal appearances, which included the 1998 league title, under the late Bill Fox. Roantree was part of that title team then avg. 8.2 ppg on his way to Third Team All-Catholic as a senior alongside First Team selections Mike Pidhirsky and Brian Fox.

Roantree had 21 points and seven rebounds as the Crusaders outlasted Archbishop Wood in the quarterfinals 25 years ago then the late Eddie Griffin and Roman Catholic ended Father Judge’s run in the ensuing round. On Friday night, Roantree again went up against the Vikings, this time as head coach, and it was his junior point guard who was the star, skyrocketing the Crusaders back in a position they have long coveted. Kevair Kennedy set a Philadelphia Catholic League postseason record with 18 made free throws (17 coming in the final quarter) and finished with a Father Judge playoff record 33 points in a 78-71 win at Archbishop Wood.

Father Judge vs. Archbishop Wood - PSD PCL Quarterfinal Highlights by Rich Flanagan

Kennedy, who is avg. 17.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 6.0 apg and 2.0 spg, is the first Father Judge player to be named First Team All-Catholic since Marc Rodriguez in 2017 and surpassed the previous playoff record Rodriguez scored (32) against Archbishop Ryan in the quarterfinals that year. It truly was a year of firsts for a program and community that has been yearning for this type of success since Fox, who won 545 career games, stepped away for good in 2005.

Roantree played an essential role in Father Judge’s success on the hardwood, and he has brought about a resurgence within the program in his third season as head coach.

“We’ve talked about it throughout this year with all the firsts,” Roantree said. “First time we got to the quarterfinals since 2017. First time we’ve had three All-Catholics since 2017. A First Team All-Catholic for the first time since 2017. It’s our best scoring average in the history of the program. We’ve had a lot of firsts and taken these next steps within the program.”

Kennedy was masterful, adding 11 rebounds and eight assists, in the biggest game of his career and 6-3 sophomore Derrick Morton-Rivera (15.7 ppg, 60 three-pointers) looked more than ready to play in his first quarterfinal game with five three-pointers and 19 points. His father, D.J. Rivera, won a pair of Philadelphia Catholic League titles at Neumann-Goretti and had 11 points in a win over Archbishop Wood at the Palestra in the 2005 semifinals. Morton-Rivera is hoping a comparable performance is in the cards.

Laquan Byrd, the 6-3 senior and Second Team All-Catholic avg. 12.8 ppg and 7.0 rpg, contributed six points, five rebounds and four assists in Friday’s victory and is hoping to duplicate the performance he produced in the 76-62 win over Roman Catholic in the regular season, the program’s first win over the Cahillites since 2011. He had 17 points, six rebounds and three assists in that game.

Chris McNesby was on the sideline when Xzayvier Brown drilled one of the most historic shots in the history of the Philadelphia Catholic League that sent last year’s final against Neumann-Goretti into overtime. McNesby secured his third league title as head coach and gave Roman Catholic its all-time leading 33rd crown.

One starter from that team remains in Shareef Jackson, who had 16 points, 14 rebounds and five assists in a dominating 71-32 win over Cardinal O’Hara in the quarterfinals. The 6-7 junior and First Team All-Catholic, who is avg. 17.1 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 1.4 bpg and has posted nine double-doubles, is a three-year starter but this is his first true test as the go-to player for the Cahillites with Brown, Anthony Finkley, Daniel Skillings Jr., and Khalil Farmer all having moved on over the past two seasons.

McNesby has coached several players who cemented themselves as all-time Roman Catholic greats but compared to all of them, he has not seen a player with the composure and temperament that Jackson portrays every time he steps on the floor.

“Shareef is such a special kid where he keeps an even keel all the time,” McNesby said. “I’ve very rarely seen him get off-center, or even too high or too low.  He’s right down the middle, and that does so much for our team because guys read him and play off him.”

McNesby’s current team is very much built like the 2010-11 version that fell to the Crusaders in the regular season but enacted revenge in the quarterfinals. Jackson plays the role of 6-8 big man Fortunat "Junior" Kangudi, although McNesby challenged that “Shareef is a little more than what we had on that team.” But when adding the scoring dispersion with Shep Garner, Rip Engel, Montana Mayfield, and Shafeek Taylor, this is a variation of that group as “there’s five guys who average at least eight points a game. It’s pretty balanced and that team was very similar with some depth.”

Shareef Jackson tallied 16 points, 14 rebounds and five assists in quarterfinal win over Cardinal O'Hara - PSD Photo by Krystal Williams

The Cahillites are finally at full strength, but the way McNesby has interchanged lineups and put different players in particular positions to create the best matchup for his team has been sensational. It’s a focal reason why Roman Catholic is a game away from yet another league final. Robert Cottrell, who came off the bench on last year’s team, had 16 points, Travis Reed Jr. scored 12 points and Sammy Jackson, the 6-5 sophomore and Shareef’s younger brother, hit three three-pointers and finished with 11 points as Roman Catholic recorded 24 assists on 28 made field goals against the Lions. The Cahillites have five players who have hit at least 20 three-pointers this season in Reed (36), Sebastian Edwards (32), Sammy (28), Hunter Johnson (20) and Cottrell (20).

The mantra of this Roman Catholic team is not caring who scores the points or how they get scored, and it has boded well especially when accounting for the introduction of new players and an assortment of different lineups.

“We’ve been three different teams as we played the first part of the season without Kabrien Goss,” McNesby said. “We learned to play with Kabe then we lost Shareef. Sammy steps up, and we learn to play with him and not Shareef. Now, we’re blending it all back together again.”

Goss missed the first 12 games of the year returning from two knee injuries. Shareef missed six games with an ankle injury and Sammy was superb upon being inserted into the starting lineup. Goss, Reed, and Johnson are all new to the rotation, but it has been business as usual for the storied program and its accomplished head coach, who knows how to win at the Palestra. While this iteration of the Cahillites doesn’t score a lot of points, it has limited the opposition to less than 50 points in 17 games this season, showcasing its defensive versatility.

Offense can be tough to come by at times when playing at the Palestra, especially for inexperienced players, but sticking to defensive principles can feed into offensive spurts. That is where the Cahillites thrive and McNesby is excited for that prospect.

Roman Catholic vs. Cardinal O'Hara - PSD PCL Quarterfinal Highlights by Krystal Williams

“Some of them have the body type but also the will to do that,” McNesby said. “They wanted to be a really good defensive team. It’s their togetherness and commitment to defense. That’s been really good to see.”

Roman Catholic already has one advantage heading into Wednesday night. It has played the majority of its regular-season home games at Holy Family University with two games at its renowned gym on the third floor of the school at the intersection of Broad & Vine along with one game at Jefferson University and another at Chestnut Hill College. This team travels well and playing at neutral sites is second nature for the Cahillites.

The Philadelphia Catholic League title game will either be a continuation of dominance for Neumann-Goretti and Roman Catholic, who have played each other 10 times in the final since 2000, or perhaps Northeast Philadelphia rivals Father Judge and Archbishop Ryan will meet in the championship for the first time ever. Whoever advances, the Palestra will play host to one of the great nights in Philadelphia high school basketball once again.