As soon as Corwin Austin’s desperation 3-point shot thudded off the backboard, bounced off the rim and landed harmlessly on the floor, the celebration began.
Players from the John F. Kennedy boys’ basketball team met at halfcourt from all angles, the bench and each end of the Carnesecca Arena court. Following their 61-58 victory over No. 3 Thomas Jefferson in the PSAL Class AA semifinals at St. John’s University, they swarming one another in a frenzied mosh pit of white and red jerseys.
Moments later, the Knights’ fans took it to another level.
“POP, RIP,” they chanted. “POP, RIP.”
The Knights joined in, escalating the revelry.
They were referring to Andre (Pop) Davidson, 18, the former player who passed away July 5, one week after his graduation while playing a pickup game of basketball at St. Mary’s Gym in the South Bronx. Kennedy (26-2), winners of 19 straight, dedicated the season to him, promising to make it to Madison Square Garden for the city championship.
“We have him in our heads and hearts,” senior guard Jeffrey Arzu said. “He was right in the game with us. In the overtime, I had more energy. He was with me.”
So was Naquan Pierce. Those two factors, in addition to the continued poise Kennedy has shown when facing elimination, enabled the Bronx school to return to the city championship game for the first time since 2005.
Pierce scored a game-high 23 points, including the winning jumper from the right elbow with 12 seconds remaining in the extra session. He also had 10 in the fourth quarter and overtime. Arzu followed with 14 and Ross Vizcaino had eight. Dave Coley paced Jefferson (20-11) with 15, Marcus Romain had 12, Joel (Air Jamaica) Wright 11 and Davontay Grace 10.
“Words can’t describe how I feel,” Arzu said. “I always wanted this after going home early the last three years.”
The winning shot came on a play called “Indiana.” Pierce sets up on the low blocks in the paint, where double stack screens are set up. He pops out to the top of the key for an isolation. He can either shoot or drive. It’s a special play, coach Johnny Mathis said, they don’t run during the regular season.
During a timeout Mathis called with 30.9 seconds left, he told his players they were going to run it for Pierce. The 5-foot-9 junior guard, in his third year on the varsity, knew Kennedy was just one shot away from the Garden. The pressure, though, doesn’t seem to bother him. It didn’t the week before when he led the Knights back from a seven-point deficit in the final quarter in the ‘AA’ quarterfinals.
Kennedy controlled much of the game, building a 21-12 lead early in the second quarter. Jefferson, who was without star guard Keith Spellman (back injury), struggled from the field. Wright, the Fordham-bound forward, was struggling against big men Kuashonn Kibbler and Shea Spence.
“I’ve never seen my big guys so animated,” the longtime coach said. “They beat me to practice they were so excited to play this game.”
Mathis was disappointed with how the first half ended, the Knights turning the ball over and letting the Orange Wave reel off 13 of the second quarter’s final 17 points, to get even at 25.
The second half was a back-and-forth affair, the two sides trading the lead over a dozen times. Kennedy seemed to be in control late in the fourth quarter.
Jefferson, however, kept on coming, getting even on Grace’s right-wing jumper that touched every part of the rim and the backboard before falling with 16.6 seconds remaining. Short missed at the buzzer to force overtime.
Arzu, who made his first start since midseason, tied the game at 58 with a layup over Jefferson center Kyle Francis and 1:02 to play. The Brooklyn school missed three chances on the ensuing possession and Pierce somehow came out of the pack with the rebound. He nailed that pull-up jumper the next time down the court.
Kennedy is now back in the city championship game, against a familiar foe – No. 1 Lincoln. It is the same team they beat in each of Mathis’s two previous title runs – 2005 and 2001 – and the same team who knocked them out of the quarterfinals the last two March’s.