By Zach Braziller
When Jermaine Lawrence inexplicably left Cardozo three weeks ago for Pope John XXIII in Sparta, N.J., the Judges lost one of the nation’s top junior prospects. In his absence, however, they have become a better team — tougher, with better ball movement and more poise.
How else to explain this recent upswing of four straight wins, including Sunday’s impressive 71-67 victory over Bronx AA powerhouse John F. Kennedy in the Public Schools Athletic League Steve Simms Memorial AA Division Showcase at York College?
“Everybody’s been doubting us, which lit a fire under us,” senior forward Tajay Henry said. “We’re playing really well, playing as a team.”
Ever since Lawrence left, Henry said detractors have come out of the woodwork, saying the season was virtually over, that the Judges weren’t a title contender any longer and Bayside would overtake them in Queens AA. Henry took it personally, and has played the best basketball of his career.
“When Jermaine left, I had to put the team on my back,” Henry said. “I just don’t want to lose, so I come out to play hard every day and I try to get my team to play hard.”
That continued against Kennedy as Henry went off for 22 points and 15 rebounds. Kendall Brown added 14 points, Ryan Yearwood had 12 and Kyle Credle 10. The Judges did a phenomenal job sharing the ball, with 20 assists, six from Edwin Sainvil and five from Omar Williams.
“Denver lost Carmelo and it worked for them,” Kennedy Coach Johnny Mathis said. “It creates team unity. They move the ball really well.”
Muhammed Ahmed paced Kennedy (15-8) with 23 points and Bashir Ahmed, his younger brother, had 13.
Henry scored 14 points in the first half, helping Cardozo build a 37-31 advantage with a variety of quick moves around the basket. He scored four points in a 9-2 run after Kennedy pulled within a point in the third quarter. Brown had the biggest shot, a top-of-the-key three-pointer to make it 62-55 with 2:07 left.
“I’m just so proud of my kids,” Cardozo Coach Ron Naclerio said. “They’ve been counted out with the kid I love being gone. I have kids like Tajay, my assistant coaches that just don’t want to lose.”
Henry has emerged as Cardozo’s emotional leader on the court and off. The uncommitted, 6-foot-5 senior become its top rebounder, has always been the Judges’ best defender and now the leading scorer, also.
“He’s taking on a lot of responsibility,” Brown said.
Immediately after Lawrence left, Cardozo (15-4) dropped consecutive non-league contests, to top competition. Even in those games, Naclerio raved about Henry. In a loss to New London (Conn.) two days after Lawrence’s departure, Henry played so hard he had to be taken to the hospital for painful cramps.
“Tajay is a warrior,” Naclerio said. “I call him the high school version of Ronnie Artest, who I know well. He just refuses to lose.”
His teammates have joined in of late and the Judges are starting to play their best basketball with the borough playoffs looming.
“We’ve showed a lot of schools we can be a contender,” Henry said. “I don’t know if teams are still doubting us, but that’s doesn’t matter. We’re still going to play hard.”