Before the 2015-16 season, the Roman Catholic Cahilites were the odds-on favorite to win the Philadelphia Catholic League. Having won the 2014-15 title, the state championship, and added Haverford School transfer Lamar Stevens to the lineup, the consensus was that the PCL was "Roman and then everyone else."
But Roman would look more vulnerable than anticipated in Catholic League play. After senior center Paul Newman went down with a concussion, the Cahilites dropped a key game to the Neumann-Goretti Saints in Neumann's small South Philadelphia gym in early January. They followed that up with an even more surprising loss to Archbishop Carroll, and suddenly it was a three-team race for the Catholic League.
Even with Newman returning, there were question marks. Point guard Tony Carr looked off, with his shot not working and it affecting the rest of his game. Stevens was a force, but with Newman hurt, Stevens was forced to take on greater responsibilities defensively with only freshman Mikael Jones available to aid down low, and foul trouble was hurting his ability to make an impact.
So when Roman came into the Catholic League playoffs as a 3-seed, it was not necessarily a fluke. And in the semi-final rematch with Carroll, it took everything Roman had to get to the championship. A 64-63 win was well-earned, but was no statement game indicating that Neumann was in trouble.
Roman made that statement early in the championship game Monday night. After Carr made a pair of free throws, baskets by Stevens, Newman, and wing Nazeer Bostick gave them an 8-0 lead just two minutes into the game. Roman's large student section that extended from the baseline all the way to the top of Palestra was in a frenzy. They'd extend the lead to 13-2 before Neumann was finally able to re-calibrate.
Of course, Neumann was not going to go away easily. Roman had three all-Catholic players this season: Carr and Stevens were first-team, while Bostick was second-team. Neumann countered with three first-team selections (guard Quade Green, wing Zane Martin, and forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree), and two second-team selections (guard Vaughn Covington and wing Rasheed Browne). They're an extremely talented team and were not going to go quietly into the night.
With Newman on the bench with foul trouble, Neumann fed the ball inside to Cosby-Roundtree and got him going early in the first half. This was important with Green, who lit up Roman in the January game, struggling to get open looks as Carr and Bostick alternated guarding him on the three-point line. Neumann kept it close and went into the half down just 32-27. They'd tie it in the third quarter on Green's lone three of the night, a moving three off the bounce that nodded things up at 44-44. But Roman responded, and wrestled control back. Stevens was the key piece for Roman's offense, getting tough inside baskets while playing through very physical defense. He'd cap off a tough third quarter with a buzzer beating jumper to give Roman a 54-50 lead.
Things got dicey at the end of the game with Neumann fouling Roman players in an attempt to forge a comeback. Roman struggled at the line down the stretch, and at one point Neumann was able to get it down to a 68-65 game. But Roman continued to deny Neumann open looks on the three-point line as they had done all game (Neumann as a team went just 2-20 from three), and sealed up a 72-65 win.
- Final stat lines for the Penn State commits:
Tony Carr: 21 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists
Lamar Stevens: 22 points, 13 rebounds, 3 assists
Nazeer Bostick: 12 points, 11 rebounds
- Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers and assistant coach Keith Urgo were in attendance, as were Villanova head coach Jay Wright and his assistant coaches. Reports indicate that Saint Joseph's head coach Phil Martelli and members of the Syracuse and Drexel coaching staffs were in attendance as well.
- Stevens looks really good, but one thing Chambers and staff will want to work on is his conditioning. In his defense, Roman plays a very tight rotation and the starters play almost the entire game. But Stevens was clearly winded at times in the middle of the game, at one point requiring head coach Chris McNesby to use a timeout to get him a breather in the second quarter. Still, Stevens came alive in the fourth quarter and got key buckets down the stretch against Neumann's bigs. His ability to play through contact is just as impressive as his athleticism in the open court.
- Bostick is athletic and plays bigger than his size due to his jumping ability and nose for the ball. One thing that he needs to work on is shot selection. He seems to like his jumper more than he should, and I'm sure Penn State's coaching staff will emphasize that defense and rebounding are his most valuable skills. Bostick is an inefficient offensive player who needs to improve his court vision to compete in the Big Ten. His ball handling isn't bad, so this is more about teaching than it is about skill development.
- The most impressive thing about Carr is his control of the game. More than any player on the court, he dictates the pace of the game. He has a nice mid-range game that was on display Monday, with good touch around the rim. He displayed a floater that reminded a little bit of former Penn State point guard Tim Frazier. And he is bigger and stronger than most point guards coming out of high school. There is a lot to like with his game.
Roman will play at Saint Joseph's on Friday, February 26 against top Philadelphia Public League team Martin Luther King. The winner of that game will win the "City Championship" and will be District XII's top seed in the PIAA AAAA Tournament, which begins on March 5.