Numbers don’t add up for the Raiders

Bri­an Okolo of Arch­bish­op Ry­an moves up the court Sunday. (Brad Lar­ris­on)

Bas­ket­ball is a num­bers game, and the num­bers usu­ally don’t lie.

They tell the story in many ways, from points on the score­board to stat­ist­ics in the box score. For the Arch­bish­op Ry­an boys bas­ket­ball team, the num­bers cer­tainly told the story in Fri­day night’s 69-53 Cath­ol­ic League quarterfi­nals play­off loss at Arch­bish­op Car­roll.

The num­bers will show the Raid­ers con­nec­ted on four of their first five three-point­ers in a tor­rid first quarter, build­ing a 14-5 lead that had the Ry­an fans in at­tend­ance think­ing about Wed­nes­day night’s game at the Palestra, where the Cath­ol­ic League semi­finals and cham­pi­on­ship are played. However, where the num­bers really hurt Ry­an was in over­all height dis­par­ity (their starters stood at 5’10’’, 5’10’’, 6-feet, 6’2’’ and 6’2’’). Car­roll quickly re­cog­nized the Raid­ers’ de­fi­ciency and began routinely dump­ing the ball down to 6-foot-6 sopho­more Der­rick Jones (22 points) and 6-foot-9 Ern­est Aflak­pui (five points), who scored with ease un­der­neath the bas­ket.

Oth­er times, Car­roll used Jones and Aflak­pui as de­coys, draw­ing the cov­er­age on them down low be­fore kick­ing it out to guards Nick Jones (13 points) or Yosef Yacob (18 points, eight re­bounds, sev­en as­sists) for an open look. In the end, the taller, more ver­sat­ile Eagles were just too much for Ry­an to over­come.

“Their size got them back in­to it, no ques­tion,” Ry­an head coach Bernie Ro­gers said. “They used that to spread us out, and if you look at the top three or four teams in our league, they usu­ally have that massive size. With us be­ing so small, it leaves us a smal­ler mar­gin to make mis­takes.”

Ry­an hung around in the second quarter, go­ing in­to half­time down just five. But Car­roll stepped on the ac­cel­er­at­or early in the second half, and the out­come was nev­er in doubt after that.

The Raid­ers’ lack of size brings up an­oth­er in­ter­est­ing ques­tion: Do teams need ex­cess height to get over the top in this league? Ry­an, a his­tor­ic­ally un­der­sized team, has won a com­bined 18 games in the Cath­ol­ic League (known for be­ing one of the deep­est, if not the deep­est, in the state) the past two sea­sons but has zero play­off wins and semi­final ap­pear­ances to show for it. Ro­gers points to reg­u­lar sea­son games this sea­son when his team came oh-so-close to knock­ing off the likes of Car­roll, Neu­mann-Gor­etti, St. Joseph’s Prep and Ro­man Cath­ol­ic, all of whom will be play­ing at the Palestra on Wed­nes­day night.

“The sea­son is such a grind, and to even fin­ish in the top six the way we did is such a huge ac­com­plish­ment,” Ro­gers said. “It’s an ex­treme chal­lenge to make it down there. But as far as the size goes, sure it gives you more op­por­tun­it­ies if you’ve got it, but we nev­er let that get us down and we played very well to­geth­er this sea­son re­gard­less.”

In real­ity, the Cath­ol­ic League is a crap­shoot. The four who qual­i­fied for the semi­finals are usu­ally the ones who get there every year; throw in La Salle and Arch­bish­op Wood, who have had luck in the past, and the task for schools like Ry­an or Fath­er Judge to get to the Palestra can seem in­sur­mount­able.

“Get­ting to the Palestra is like get­ting to the Fi­nal Four in the NCAA Tour­na­ment,” said Bish­op McDe­vitt coach Jack Rut­ter. “To give you an idea, this is my 18th year in the Cath­ol­ic League, and this year was only my third play­off berth. It’s not something I’m proud of, be­cause I feel there should be more.”

Rut­ter’s plight is not un­fa­mil­i­ar in such a cut­throat, un­for­giv­ing league. In fact, McDe­vitt’s open­ing-round play­off win over Judge last week was just the school’s second Cath­ol­ic League play­off win in 50 years. As Rut­ter said, “You can un­der­stand why that win was so big for our pro­gram.”

Oth­er coaches around the league agreed with the over­all point.

“I am quite cer­tain that a team like Ry­an could com­pete with some of the top teams in the state, but they won’t see the state tour­na­ment be­cause only one in our league is guar­an­teed a spot,” said La Salle coach Joe De­mp­sey. “That’s the biggest crime here. Our league is just so ex­tremely dif­fi­cult. It’s very daunt­ing, year after year, just fight­ing to com­pete. But I think any coach in our league will tell you that the beauty of it is there is so much at­ten­tion giv­en to every game.”

Per­haps no coach bet­ter un­der­stands that than Neu­mann-Gor­etti’s Carl Ar­ri­gale. Ar­ri­gale’s pro­gram has been the cream of the crop in the Cath­ol­ic League, qual­i­fy­ing for the post­season Fi­nal Four in 10 of his 15 years at the helm. Un­til Jan. 7 of this year, when they were upen­ded by La Salle, Neu­mann had won an eye-pop­ping 73 con­sec­ut­ive league games. But it’s been any­thing but easy for the league’s top dog.

“It then be­comes an ex­pect­a­tion, and it’s a dis­aster if you don’t make it to the Palestra,” Ar­ri­gale said. “Top to bot­tom it’s as good as it gets. We’ve played a lot of 28-2 or 29-1 teams in na­tion­al tour­na­ments that wouldn’t even make the play­offs in our league. Once you get there, you get a hun­ger for that suc­cess and want to make it back every year. We don’t take it for gran­ted.”

So what does this mean for Ry­an? The Raid­ers will lose big tal­ent in seni­ors Bry­an Okolo (who fin­ished with 14 points vs. Car­roll and in the top 10 over­all in the league), Gage Ga­le­one (19 points), Shawn Miller, Tyler Reed and 6-foot-7 Billy Dykan, the only play­er with height the team used.

Thus, it won’t make things any easi­er for Ro­gers and com­pany next year, but in this league, Ro­gers ex­pects noth­ing less.

“All you can hope is that the un­der­class­men looked at how hard these guys worked in or­der to have suc­cess,” said Ro­gers, who just com­pleted his 13th sea­son as Ry­an’s coach. “You hope be­ing in the play­offs in­spires the leftover guys to main­tain that type of suc­cess. We want to get down there and hoist that trophy at the Palestra, and win­ning now will only help us win more in the fu­ture.

“But I told our staff after the loss to Car­roll, I don’t think the av­er­age fan un­der­stands how good nine wins in a league like this is. Fin­ish­ing ahead of the likes of Judge, La Salle, Wood, McDe­vitt … these are top-three teams in any oth­er league. We nev­er beat ourselves and al­ways gave ourselves a chance, and that will con­tin­ue to be our goal go­ing for­ward.”••

Sports ed­it­or Ed Mor­rone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or em­or­

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