PHILADELPHIA — Blaise Vespe’s shot had been off all night, but when the ball found him in the fourth quarter, he didn’t hold back.
The Neumann-Goretti junior’s left wing three with 6:36 left in the final quarter proved the final go-ahead basket in Monday’s PCL title game against Roman Catholic at the Palestra. A hot start for the No. 3 Saints hadn’t been enough to stop No. 5 Roman from coming all the way back, but Neumann-Goretti was determined to return to the league summit.
Vespe put them ahead, then the Saints closed out the game on both ends to top the two-time defending champion Cahillities 66-58 in front of a packed house at the hallowed arena.
“We told ourselves it was the last game in the PCL so we had to give our all and leave it all out on the floor,” Vespe said. “We were going home with no regrets, that’s what we did and now we’re champions.”
The top team in the PCL standings until a couple late season losses, Neumann-Goretti (21-4) showed why it was considered a strong contender with a torrid start to the game. A 6-6 tie was broken by a 12-4 Saints run with every point coming from behind the 3-point line.
Neumann-Goretti hit five straight treys, three coming from Cameron Young, in the blistering end to the opening frame to build a 21-16 lead. With Vespe’s and-one early in the second quarter, all six N-G players to see the floor had scored and by halftime, the Saints led 33-25.
“Credit Neumann, they did a great job and consistently made big plays,” Roman coach Matt Griffin said. “Our kids fought back and there were stretches were we needed to play a little smarter and stick to our strengths but give credit to Neumann, it’s a win well-deserved.”
The victory was a record-breaking 11th PCL title for Saints coach Carl Arrigale and his first since 2014, ending a five-year span where either Roman or Archbishop Wood took home the plaque.
Still, getting there would mean surviving the inevitable Roman run, a run that came almost out of the gates to open the third quarter. The Cahillites (16-9), who got a first half double-double from big man Jalen Duren, finally found their outside shot in the second half.
It proved to be a positive and a negative. Roman did hit three shots from behind the arc that included Justice Williams’ go-ahead trey to end the quarter, but the Saints’ zone defense took away Duren’s impact inside.
The forward scored just one point in the second half and his touches were limited, but that was just what the Saints were hoping for.
“Our coaches told us to make him work with the lower half of his body, he’s not as strong down there,” Vespe said. “In the first half, he was real physical in the post but in the second half, he didn’t want the same contact, I think we made him tired.”
Posting up, moving and re-posting against a zone defense is a taxing job and even when the Saints broke their zone to go back to man once Roman started hitting shots, the Cahillites never re-established the inside game.
“It was in the gameplan to go to Jalen as much as we possibly could and we went away from that for whatever reason but we take full ownership of that and learn from it,” Griffin said. “It was a good usage of the zone and it certainly slowed it down.”
Roman extended its lead to 47-43 in the fourth, but a bucket by N-G senior Hakim Byrd kicked off the game-flipping run with 7:04 to go.
Guard Hysier Miller grabbed a rebound, pushed the ball up the floor and drove into the lane before kicking out to Vespe on the wing the next Saints possession. The junior forward, who had made just one shot to that point, didn’t second-guess the decision.
“I just have to stay confident no matter if I miss 20 times in a row,” Vespe said. “It’s definitely and adjustment getting used to these Palestra rims, it’s different than shooting at a high school rim. You just keep shooting and stay locked in.”
Vespe admitted the three and the lead it gave the Saints boosted their confidence. Young followed with a trey in the corner off a Byrd feed then Jordan Hall hit two free throws for a 53-47 lead.
Roman rushed a couple offensive possessions during the Saints run and after Hall’s free throws, N-G ran the clock down to 2:31 before the Cahillites had to foul to extend the game. Neumann-Goretti hit 11 of the 14 free throws it took while in the bonus and 13 of 16 overall in the final quarter.
“To win these games, you have to be extremely disciplined,” Griffin said. “You can’t take bad shots and especially when you have Jalen Duren on your team, the best way to play is inside-out. We need the poise in situations where we don’t get an initial good look, to take our time and work for another good look.
“We rushed a couple, the possessions in the fourth quarter were limited, they made a few plays, we didn’t and that was it.”
Roman will regroup before Saturday’s District 12-6A title game against Simon Gratz then move into the state tournament.
“We win together and we lose together, we’re trying to help these young men build character and it’s not where you stand when things are going well but how you get up the next day and keep going back to work,” Griffin said. “For us, it’s this continuous process of getting better. We learn from our mistakes tonight, give Neumann-Goretti the credit they deserve and look forward to our next game.”
NEUMANN-GORETTI 66, ROMAN CATHOLIC 58
NEUMANN-GORETTI 21 12 10 23 – 66
ROMAN CATHOLIC 16 9 20 13 – 58
Neumann-Goretti: Hysier Miller 4 9-10 17, Hakim Byrd 5 2-2 12, Blaise Vespe 3 0-3 7, Cameron Young 9 0-0 22, Jordan Hall 1 2-4 5, Chris Evans 1 0-0 3. Totals: 23 13-19 66.
Roman Catholic: Lynn Greer III 5 4-4 17, Xzayvier Brown 4 0-0 9, Justice Williams 9 0-0 21, Jalen Duren 5 1-2 11. Totals: 23 5-6 58.
3-pointers: NG – Young 4, Vespe, Evans, Hall; RC – Williams 3, Greer 3, Brown.