Jeffrey Arzu’s high-school career flashed before his eyes. He stood completely still, just inside of the 3-point line, watching as Lowell Ulmer’s shot headed for the rim.
The PSAL Class AA quarterfinal between Arzu’s John F. Kennedy’s boys’ basketball team and McKee/Staten Island Tech was tied, but it didn’t seem that way for the senior guard.
If the ball fell through the net – and it seemed to have the right trajectory and rotation – the second-seeded Knights were going home.
“My heart came out of my chest,” he recalled. “It was a like a movie because it felt (like it was going in slow motion).”
The ball soared past the front of the rim, nestled in twine momentarily, before caroming off each side of the rim and bouncing out. Ross Vizcaino (12 points) secured the rebound as time expired.
Second-seeded Kennedy was given a reprieve and took advance in overtime, thanks to the heroics of junior guard Naquan Pierce, who scored seven of his career-high 38 points in the extra session in an 85-81 victory over No. 10 McKee/Staten Island Tech at Carnesecca Arena Saturday afternoon.
JFK (25-2), winners of 18 straight, will meet No. 3 Thomas Jefferson, which defeated sixth-seeded Forest Hills, 70-59, in a Class AA semifinal March 15 at St. John’s.
Arzu brought up the memory of former Knight Andre (Pop) Davidson, who the team has dedicated the season to. Davidson fatally collapsed July 5, 2008 while playing a pickup game at St. Mary’s gym in the South Bronx.
“He’s giving us another chance,” Arzu told his teammates.
And Pierce took full advantage. He hit a long 3-pointer, then a short jumper from the left elbow to put Kennedy up four, 82-78, with less than a minute remaining. He then added two free throws to ice it.
Pierce scored 18 points in the first half and 10 more in the fourth quarter, rallying the Knights from a seven-point deficit. After his hot start, he went into a funk, misfiring on his trademark pull-up jumper. He never lost confidence, particularly because Mathis kept telling him to remaining confident.
“I needed to score to keep us in the game,” he said.
Said Mathis: “The best for him is yet to come.”
The same can be said for Kennedy. In the Knights’ two previous runs to the city championships, in 2005 and 2001, they survived similar scares.
Ulmer led MSIT with 21 points, Pucky Manley added 19 and Josh Good had 14.
Mathis said he warned his players MSIT was dangerous. He was impressed the Staten Island school, the first to make it to the quarterfinals since Curtis in 1995, had beaten Queens AA champion Cardozo in the second round. The coach knew Ulmer would give his slower big men trouble and Good was dangerous when given room.
McKee was patient against Kennedy’s zone, relying on the penetration and precise shooting of guards Good, Manley and Astel. Ulmer, as he did in a 29-point performance against Cardozo, used his speed to make up for his size disadvantage. He scored six quick points to start the second half, leading the Sea Gulls to a 41-36 lead with 5:11 to play.
Kennedy crept within two, 45-43, entering the final stanza. And what a final eight minutes it was, the two sides trading haymakers like a heavyweight fight. Pierce hit a 3-pointer under duress, and Ulmer came out of nowhere to tip in a miss. Arzu (10 points) went coast-to-coast for a layup in traffic, only for Astel to knock down a running one-hander.
Good hit a pair of 3-pointers in the final minute, the second coming with just 18.4 seconds remaining, to give McKee a two-point lead. The crowd was buzzing, sensing the upset. Kennedy came right back, however. Short drove down the right side, pulled up to avoid contact and dropped in a soft floater off the glass.
“I had to do something to help the team,” he said.
It set up the final play of regulation, when Kennedy’s season nearly came to a close. The Knights used that mulligan as a source of motivation. Their season wasn’t over, not yet. And now, it’s pushing on.