Final bow for Hills, Edison, Lewis

As the top flight of the public school basketball season ended for Queens on Saturday, three teams from the Borough of Homes finished at the top of their class. For the girls of Francis Lewis and the boys of Forest Hills and Thomas Edison, however, March 7 was not a day of celebration. It was the day they all were bounced from the PSAL quarterfinals by superior teams from Brooklyn and Manhattan.

The Lady Patriots were first to go, as it took only eight minutes for the damage to smother Francis Lewis’ chances of reaching the semis. Manhattan’s Murry Bergtraum, the highest-ranked girls’ basketball team in the PSAL, outscored No. 9 Lewis 23-5 in the first quarter, and Lewis’ Andree Kar de Leon and Kelly Robinson were limited to a team high of 11 points, with six assists for Robinson. 76-51 was the final score.

It had appeared that Lewis might come out stronger after an inspiring win over borough rival August Martin, which was ranked eighth. The two clubs were mutual irritants all season long, and both finished with a division-leading 12-3 record after a series of close-call results stretching back to last year. On December 3, Francis Lewis won 73-72; on January 20, in a game covered by The Courier, August Martin overcame a major disadvantage in personnel to win 61-58.

The squads met decisively on March 5, in the PSAL quarterfinals. The most stunning element of that matchup was the margin by which Francis Lewis won. The Patriots ran up a 47-26 margin in the first half, holding on for an 84-53 total. There were times this season when Lewis, facing the loss of a suspended head coach while Martin faced the loss of several ineligible players, looked to be in disarray. But the Patriots are at their best when their attack is balanced, and on Thursday, Robinson (with a double-double), Tatiana Wilson, and Syreeta Williams all scored in double figures.

Martin, meanwhile, was not so lucky. Krystina Agard, capping off a season in which she carried the Lady Falcons on her back, scored 35 with little support. Starasia Lawley, the Falcons’ second-biggest scoring threat, was suspended from play due to an altercation at school.

Beach Channel and Benjamin Cardozo, Queens’ two other representatives in the PSAL girls’ ‘AA’ playoffs, lost in the first and second rounds respectively.

Personnel issues, it should be noted, were hardly exclusive to the girls’ side. They played a role in the elimination of Forest Hills, the boys’ team that won Queens back on February 15 and has fancied itself a team of destiny for months.

The Rangers were one of two teams – fellow quarterfinalist Thomas Edison was the other – predicted by The Courier this preseason to mount a serious challenge to perennial juggernauts Benjamin Cardozo and Campus Magnet. It took them a while to get there, but when they finally upset Cardozo in overtime in the Queens finals, that the Rangers had arrived was no longer a subject of debate.

Seventh-seeded Cardozo never quite recovered from the loss, quietly slipping out of the city’s Round of 16 with a 76-73 loss to Staten Island’s McKee Vocational, ranked 10th. But the sixth-ranked Rangers did not step aside until the waning minutes of their March 7 matchup with Brooklyn’s Thomas Jefferson, the third-best team in New York.

Jefferson gradually built up an 11-point margin of victory, outscoring Hills in every quarter but never by more than four points. The Orange Wave was easily the flashier team – a tendency underscored by a stunning alley-oop in the first half by Keith Spellman, who stretched backward to receive the pass. But the game was rife with turnovers and jump balls, with Forest Hills the more-often-than-not beneficiary of such sloppiness.

The Rangers kept it close, narrowing the margin to six points three times in the fourth quarter. But each time they failed to score again. Particularly devastating was the Rangers’ chance with 1:05 left in the fourth quarter and the score at 62-56: Maurice Harkless won Forest Hills the ball with an intercepted pass, then saw it stolen right back by Thomas Jefferson.

The score was 70-59 when the final buzzer sounded. Senior Andre Armstrong, benched moments earlier to the sound of applause from the Forest Hills audience, sobbed.

“They’re hurting in this locker room right now,” said Rangers head coach Ben Chobhaphand. “I told my kids I’m so proud of them. That’s an achievement.”

“We still didn’t have enough heart. He out-rebounded us single-handedly,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong was referring to the Orange Wave’s Joel Wright, who scored 24 points (tying Hills’ Harkless) and tallied 15 rebounds. Wright had been ejected from the Brooklyn borough finals for receiving two technical fouls and was to be suspended for two games – but the PSAL reviewed the case and elected not to keep Wright out of Saturday’s matchup, Jefferson’s second game since the ejection.

Chobhaphand was not satisfied with the merits of the decision but said that he would have wanted to face Jefferson at its best. If anything, he was consistent with the Rangers’ confident attitude all season long, emphasized by Harkless’ post-game statement that “[t]he whole season we weren’t expecting to lose.”

Fellow Queens team Thomas Edison, ranked 12th, saw its season end two hours later, with a 63-51 loss to Brooklyn’s Boys & Girls, ranked fourth. The Kangaroos led all game long, making Edison’s first-round upset of the Bronx’s Wings Academy (No. 5) on March 3 – buoyed by 17 points from Stephen Nwaukoni and 15 from Isiah Stokley – the Inventors’ most memorable PSAL playoffs moment.

Campus Magnet, seeded 14th, lost to Jefferson in the Round of 16.

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