Nazareth holds off furious Royals rally to win CHSAA ‘AA’ state title

The Nazareth players remembered what last year felt like.

While playing for St. Michael Academy they watched Christ the King celebrate at center court at Cardinal Spellman after their season ended one game shy of earning a chance to defend their Federation title. This year, the Royals staged an all-out, fourth-quarter rally to again send them home disappointed.

“At the end they made their last push,” Nazareth coach Apache Paschall said. “We took it and we stood.”

And then jumped for joy.

The Lady Kingsmen held on to beat rival Christ the King, 62-58, in the CHSAA Class AA girls basketball state final Sunday at Holy Trinity in Hicksville, L.I. It celebrated the school’s first-ever crown with a large contingent of supporters. Taylor Ford scored 18 points, Bianca Cuevas had 16 and Darius Faulk added nine for Nazareth, ranked No. 12 in the country by USA Today.

The victory sends the Lady Kingsmen to the state Federation final March 27 at the Times Union Center in Albany and ends CK’s reign as champion. It is their third win over the Royals this season.

“It means the world to me, to us, especially the seniors,” Ford said. “This is our last year. We didn’t want this to be our last game.”

Her team appeared ready to run away from Christ the King after holding a 49-34 lead early in the fourth quarter, but the Royals came charging back. Bria Smith scored 13 of her 27 points in the final stanza and Nia Oden dropped in 12, including a layup plus the foul with 1:04 left in the game and her team down 10. She missed the free throw, but Sierra Calhoun got the rebound, was fouled and made 1-of-2 at the line. After a turnover Rayne Connell (10 points) fed Smith for a 3-point play and the Nazareth lead was just 59-55 with 32 seconds remaining.

Cuevas, who scored seven of Naz’s first 10 second-quarter points in highlight real fashion, made 1-of-2 free throws. The Lady Kingsmen got the rebound, but saw Faulk called for a backcourt violation with another referee ready to call a foul.

“It’s like clockwork.” Paschall said of playing CK. “I know something is going to happen and then their bench says something to the ref and then there are seven calls not in our way. I’m not saying it was in their way, but somebody got the call. It wasn’t me.”

What he did get was clutch shooting from Cuevas. CK’s Sierra Calhoun knocked down a jumper to pull her team within 60-57 with 18.8 seconds left. Connell just came up empty on a steal attempt along the baseline before Cuevas was fouled and made a pair at the free throw line to put the Lady Kingsmen ahead 62-57 with 9.5 seconds remaining. Smith would connect on just 1-of-2 free throws on CK’s next possession.

Faulk ended the quarter with a 3-pointer from the top of the key to make it 45-34 heading in the fourth. Ford scored four straight points to start the final quarter, including a turnaround jumper out of the post to extend the lead to as much as 49-34.

“We worked hard for this,” Jones said. “We really did.”

The journey is not over despite a year adjusting to a new school and a new league. The team had to deal with Paschall being investigated by the league for alleged recruiting violations and him landing in the hospital with congestive heart failure. But they stand the winners of Brooklyn/Queens, the Catholic state champ and a win away from a Federation crown.

“We know what’s looming in front of us,” Paschall said. “Bergtraum is very dangerous. … I predict us to be waiting for Bergtraum.”

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