Samb, an unlikely hero, sends Bedford back to semifinals

With the season on the line, Robert Phelps called timeout.

His Bedford Academy boys basketball team trailing Midwood by five points midway through the fourth quarter, the first-year coach needed an answer. He looked at his standout point guard, Brent Jones, and versatile power forward, Anthony Mason Jr., and told them: Get Massamba Samb the ball.

That was the same Samb, a raw 6-foot-8 forward still new to the sport, who averaged four points per game during the regular season and five thus far in the playoffs.

“They had a smaller a guy in a 1-3-1 [zone], so we made an adjustment,” Phelps said.

It paid off.

Samb scored eight points in a game-ending 16-0 run, leading the fourth-seeded Panthers past No. 12 Midwood, 62-49, in a PSAL Class A quarterfinal Sunday, March 7, at City College of New York. Bedford meets No. 9 Banneker this Sunday at Lehman College in the semifinals.

“I feel proud of myself,” the rail-thin native of Senegal said. “Last year, I didn’t play, so I feel I had to step up.”

Samb (seven rebounds) and Mason each scored 17 points for the Panthers (22-5), Malik Brown added 14 and Jones had 10 points and 10 assists. Bryan Smith paced Midwood (13-4) with 24 points and Kenroy Morissaint had 16.

Lost in Samb’s emergence was the Panthers’ suffocating defense over the final four minutes. Up to that point Smith and Morissaint had proven to be a tough cover. The two were deadly from beyond the arc and elusive in transition. Bedford began throwing double-teams at the two, and instead of finding open teammates, the two forced long jump shots.

Samb was on the team last year, but rarely got on the court for the Panthers, who also made it to the semifinals last March. He has started this winter, but hasn’t been such a focal point of the offense. Jones and Mason, the Division I prospects, have accounted for much of Bedford’s offensive production, averaging a combined 36 points per game during the regular season.

Slowly, the East New York, Brooklyn school has become more balanced. Down the stretch, that was essential. Brown hit a 3-pointer early in the quarter to slow down the Hornets’ momentum and Samb took charge late. He started the 16-0 run with a layup inside. After Jones and Mason scored consecutive baskets, Samb hit a baby jumper and added a put back after an offensive rebound and converted on a Jones drive and dish.

At that point, Bedford held a commanding 58-49 lead with 1:07 to go.

“He’s a very quiet kid, but he wants it,” Phelps said. “He played with a lot of emotion. We had enough confidence in him and he had enough confidence in himself to get the job done.”

Samb has gotten better as the year has progressed, becoming more aggressive on the low blocks. When Bedford first starting feeding him on Sunday, he turned the ball over, but quickly put that mistake behind him.

“He just has to keep working hard,” Jones said. “In the playoffs, it’s one and done.”

Bedford is still alive, however, in large part to the improving big man.