As Nigel Mitchell walked the halls of Mount St. Michael Academy Tuesday, it seemed that every player on the school’s football team stopped him with a dire request ahead of the CHSAA Class A league basketball game against rival Cardinal Hayes.
“They said please, for us, make sure you get that win,” the senior guard said.
Gary Acquah was on the football field on Thanksgiving when Hayes defeated Mount for the first time since 1980. The lineman, who is also a forward on the basketball team, went home and immediately circled the game on his calendar.
Acquah earned a measure of revenge, helping the Mountaineers rally for a 69-63 victory at Hayes.
“It still doesn’t make up for it, but it feels good that I was able to come out here with my team and really dominate this game,” said Acquah, who scored 15 of his game-high 19 points after halftime.
What made the win even sweeter for Mount (11-2, 5-2 CHSAA A-North) was that it was done without senior point guard Will Williams, who was out with the flu. Mitchell stepped up and not only moved over to point guard against the Cardinals, but he also second on the Mountaineers with 14 points.
“Usually I’m off the ball, spotting up to shoot, but I was trying to lead my team and getting everybody else shots,” Mitchell said. “I changed my role a little bit today and it worked out for us to get the win.”
No one, though, was bigger than Acquah. He wasn’t the tallest player on the court, but at 6-foot-2 and a solid 235 pounds, no one was stronger in the paint.
“His pump fakes allows him to see the rim,” Mount coach Tom Fraher said. “He’s got such big hands he just shoots it with his five fingers. He’s got a soft touch around the rim. He was real tough.”
“He just killed us off the glass,” first-year Hayes coach Joe Lods said.
Led by Nay-Quan Bloomer (17 points) and Kelvin Gil (nine points, all in the first half), Cardinal Hayes (7-5, 2-3) led 33-26 at the half and frustrated Mount with its 2-3 zone. Mountaineers sophomore Pete Aguilar was held to one second-quarter field goal.
But the Mount regrouped after halftime and went on a 13-0 run to take a 51-41 lead on a three-point play by Aguilar, who finished with eight points, with 5:36 left in the fourth quarter.
But a technical foul called on Mount’s Randy Samuels led to a seven-point swing as Hayes tied the game at 60 with 2:34 remaining. The tiny gym was engulfed in a deafening roar and momentum had clearly swung back to the hosts.
That’s when Acquah put his biggest stamp of the game. He responded with a putback to quiet the gym and put Mount back up.
“That brought us back,” Mitchell said. “Basically I think that was the most important bucket of the game.”
Hayes got within one, 64-63 with 1:24 left, but a steal and layup by Aguilar, a huge offensive rebound by Brian McMahon after two missed Acquah free throws and the Mountaineers went 3-of-4 in the final 34.5 seconds to seal an impressive road victory.
“It’s a character win for us. To come down here, without your point guard, you don’t know what to expect,” Fraher said. “I give my guys a lot of credit, they really, really toughened it out…I think we really tough and resilient in the second half.”
Hayes will look to bounce back Friday when the Cardinals head to Stepinac. Lods is perplexed that his team is 6-1 on the road and 1-4 at home.
“Now we’ll find out what we’re made of,” Lods said.