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 firstname.lastname@example.org