The Gaels were in full force when the top two teams in the Baltimore Catholic League collided Wednesday night in Irvington.
No. 1 Mount St. Joseph and St. Maria Goretti, both nicknamed Gaels, put on a terrific performance in a showdown with the BCL regular season title and top seed in the league tournament on the line.
The Baltimore contingent prevailed, 54-53, over the visitors from Hagerstown in a tightly contested defensive effort that wasn’t decided until the final taut seconds of regulation.
Mount St. Joseph (32-3 overall, 12-1 BCL) clinched the top seed in the BCL with the victory, regardless of the outcome of Friday night’s game against No. 10 Archbishop Spalding.
St. Joe center Amani Hansberry, as he has so many times during his storied career, came through when every play was crucial. The 6-foot-8 University of Illinois commit scored seven pivotal points in the fourth quarter and found fellow senior Sean Clark open on the wing for a three-point dagger that put his team on top for good with a minute to go.
”I knew they were going to kind of key on me,” Hansberry said. “I realize a lot of good things happen when the ball is in my hands, so I just tried to make a play. I saw him open, and I knew I didn’t have a shot, so I made a better pass for a better shot.”
”He always finds me,” Clark said about getting the pass from Hansberry and launching the ball toward — and through — the hoop. “I missed two early but I didn’t get defeated — I kept shooting the ball.”
Hansberry, who led all scorers with 18 points, had been held reasonably in check by Goretti junior Caleb Embeya and senior Najeh Allen until his clutch touch reappeared down the stretch.
”It’s been instilled in us all season, we’ve had our ups and downs,” Hansberry added. “We had to dig deep and find a way to win. Coach (Pat) Clatchey and our assistant coaches told us to have some heart and have some pride — and we did get the dub (W). Late-game situations we practice all the time with coach Clatchey — so we just run our plays, run our sets, move without the ball.”
Hansberry is no stranger to being a marked man, always drawing the opponents’ top big man.
“I’ve had a target on my back since I was little,” he continued. “So kind of growing up with it and understanding what it takes, the pressure’s on my shoulders. I try to just go out there and play and have fun. I know I’m the best player on the court every time I step on the court. I just do what I can every time I’m on the court.”
”Amani’s a winner,” Clatchey said. “He just makes the right plays and he makes big plays. His effort on the defensive glass is amazing. I think that’s why he’s the player he is.”
The hometown Gaels, ranked nationally by MaxPreps (17th) and ESPN (No. 23) almost squandered a healthy 30-21 halftime advantage, despite the talented Embeya on the bench for the first five minutes or so of the third quarter.
Junior Jarvis Wright knocked down three jumpers before seniors Justin Cheung and Jahsan Johnson also fueled a Goretti (24-5, 12-2 BCL) rally that knotted the score at 36-36 late in the period.
A nifty reverse by senior guard Ace Valentine and Clark’s stick-back at the buzzer gave St. Joe a 42-38 edge heading into the final frame.
However, Goretti then went on an 11-4 run to take a 49-46 lead until Hansberry’s strong move to the basket produced a vintage three-point play that deadlocked the score again with 2:35 left in regulation.
Two free throws by senior Dionte Alexander put Goretti back on top before a Hansberry jumper drew the teams even for the final time.
Clark’s triple was enough to offset Johnson’s drive with 35 seconds left to cut the lead to 54-53, although St. Joe needed a steal in the final seconds to secure the victory.
The triumph was special for Clatchey in many ways, including his standing among his peers.
In a pre-game ceremony, he was awarded a game ball handed to him by Cokey Robertson signifying that the veteran St. Joe coach (31 years, 784 wins) moved past the Goretti legend to take over third place on the all-time state wins list behind Wicomico’s runner-up Butch Waller and DeMatha’s spectacular Morgan Wooten.
Clatchey knew his team would be in a dogfight, considering that his squad fell to Goretti, 54-52, on Jan. 11 in Hagerstown.
”They’ve got good guards, their big kid (Embeya) is a good player and they’re well-coached,” Clatchey said. “There’s a reason the game came down to what it did tonight. We dodged one. Sean and Ace came up with a big steal at the end. It was a hard-fought game. We got down and we fought back.”
NO. 1 MOUNT ST. JOSEPH 54, ST. MARIA GORETTI 53
St. Maria Goretti 13 8 17 15 - 53
Mount St. Joseph 14 16 12 12 - 54
St. Maria Goretti - Embeya 13, Wright 11, Alexander 10, Johnson 9, Allen 5, Cheung 5. Totals 22 6-6 53.
Mount St. Joseph - Hansberry 18, Valentine 12, Abrams 11, Clark 7, Wingfield 3, Farrell 2, Truitt 1. Totals 20 7-12 54.