The jump shots weren’t falling, the passes weren’t crisp. On the offensive side, Rice looked like a shell of the team that captured the New York State Federation title last year and is a favorite to do it again this March.
But Mo Hicks wasn’t concerned. That’s because the Raiders were in midseason form on the other end, playing tenacious man-to-man defense in a season-opening, 56-47 win against All Hallows in a CHSAA Class AA league game Friday night at Gauchos Gym in The Bronx.
“I always stress to my team that we’re not always going to be the best offensive team every night, but one thing we can do every night is play defense,” Hicks said. “That’s the desire, something you have to want to do and I think we do a good job of getting our guys to play that type of defense on a daily basis.”
That’s a big reason why the Raiders have seven CHSAA Class AA intersectional titles in the last 15 years.
“We’re a defensive team,” said senior guard Scott Arias. “Mo always talks about defense first and offense second.”
Arias and Kevin Nascimento harassed All Hallows senior Michael Alvarado, limiting the Manhattan-bound senior guard to nine first-half points, seven from the foul line. Led by Jermaine Sanders (17 points) and Shane Southwell (15 points), Rice capitalized on turnovers and led, 34-19, at the half and 40-21 three minutes into the third quarter.
But then Alvarado went end-to-end for a 3-point play, sparking a 14-2 run that was capped by an Omar Kellman putback and foul. All Hallows (1-1) was within seven points with 1:47 left in the third quarter and it appeared the momentum had turned.
“When you get it to seven you have to have two good possessions, defensive and offensive back-to-back to get it under five,” longtime All Hallows coach John Carey said.
Instead, Alvarado picked up his fourth foul on a costly reach-in and was sent to the bench.
“I should have been a lot smarter,” Alvarado said. “That was a silly foul and I take blame for that.”
Immediately, Southwell and Sanders scored on back-to-back layups and, after one of four big blocks by Kadeem Jack, Southwell went 1-of-2 from the line with 26.2 seconds left in the third quarter and Rice led by 12 heading into the final eight minutes.
“I came out and I was a little agitated because my offense wasn’t flowing, but I felt I could make up for it on the defensive end,” said Jack, a 6-foot-8 senior forward. “I think that’s what got the defense going. They saw me playing hard and everyone starting following after.”
Alvarado scored a game-high 28 points, Kellman had 16 and sophomore Davon Robinson added three points. That accounted for all of the Gaels scoring.
“We need to have more balance, better efforts from other guys,” Carey said. “We need to get more out of those guys. If we do, then the fluidity of the offense will be better.”
The game was a rematch of last year’s Class AA semifinals, when Rice survived a scare, rallying from a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter to advance to the finals.
The Gaels never led Friday night, but Alvarado saw some alarming similarities.
“It’s the same thing as last year,” Alvarado said. “We fought back, but we just didn’t come up with the win. I give my team credit for working hard, but we’ve got to get over that hump.”