By ZACH BRAZILLER
When Christ the King and Xaverian last met, the Clippers left Middle Village with a hard-fought, four-point win they used as a springboard to climb up the Brooklyn/Queens basketball standings.
That loss may have helped the Royals as well — Sunday’s 58-48 victory in Bay Ridge over Xaverian was their seventh win in nine games since said loss and the sixth straight victory. Coincidence or not, the CK team the Clippers saw Sunday was hardly recognizable to the previous one.
“Right now they’re motivated more and I think they sense that it’s playoff time,” Xaverian Coach Jack Alesi said. “They played a very ambitious schedule and I think their focus right now is on the CHSAA, and they are certainly gonna be tough out in the playoffs.”
In every possible way, Christ the King showed how far it has come since.
The Royals clamped down on the defensive end, limiting the Clippers to 18 first-half points. They answered every mini-run with a made basket. They shared the ball and their big men, CK’s supposed weakness, made their presence felt.
“Our confidence is sky-high right now,” said point guard Corey Edwards, who had seven points and seven assists.
Omar Calhoun (game-high 23 points) made sure Christ the King (15-6, 11-2 Brooklyn/Queens) got off to a fast start, sinking his first two three-point attempts and scoring 11 first-quarter points as the Royals led 13-7 after the opening stanza. The lead was 25-14 at one point and 34-19 early in the third quarter after Jordan Fuchs (eight points, five rebounds) and Edwards converted consecutive steals into baskets.
“We have a lot of weapons, there are a lot of different places we can go,” CK Coach Joe Arbitello said. “What we weren’t doing at the beginning of the year was we weren’t playing together team offense or team defense. Now we’re willing to do that and, when we can be very good is when we’re willing to do that.”
The Royals’ smothering defense, their calling card during the hot streak, gave Xaverian fits. Open shots were hard to come by. So were second-chance opportunities. The Clippers often found themselves working against the shot clock, several feet beyond the three-point line.
“I feel like we’re playing together, we’re playing hard and guys are playing the way they’re supposed to,” Arbitello said.
Led by the hot shooting of junior Brian Bernardi (22 points), the Clippers (14-7, 6-6) got as close as eight, but never truly threatened. Calhoun and Edwards hit consecutive three-pointers when the lead got down to eight early in the fourth and on the third occasion, forward Chris Ortiz (six points, six rebounds, three blocks) put the game away with a basket inside followed by a steal and traditional three-point play.
“We didn’t let that faze us,” Calhoun said of Bernardi’s shooting. “We made sure to come back on our end and get the shots we wanted.”
The biggest change in Christ the King, Arbitello, Calhoun and Edwards say, is the improved team chemistry. After missing the season’s first month, Edwards is comfortable with this new team and them with him. There is a bond the group has developed, a trust in one another. Even when Bernardi was sinking one bomb after another, the Royals remained poised and composed, a quality Arbitello has seen often of late.
The coach doesn’t expect the good feeling to fade. His players can see the finish line.
“It took us time to jell, but championship teams don’t always start as championship teams, but they finish as them,” Calhoun said. “That’s what we’re becoming now.”