By Joseph Staszewski
Rashond Salnave knew he couldn’t miss.
And Cardozo Coach Ron Naclerio couldn’t even watch as the star sophomore guard stepped to the free throw line with a chance to give the Judges their first city title since 1999.
It was a situation Salnave said he dreamed about, and living the moment was surreal. Cardozo was down a point with 2.5 seconds left. The fate of Salnave’s team and his eccentric coach’s sanity were in his hands.
“I was nervous, too, but I’ve been in those situations before,” Salnave said. “It’s just the situations that were before weren’t as big as this one. Some people say I’m only a sophomore and it’s a big feeling, but I knew what I had to do.”
He made both shots, taking a long walk off the line in between free throws and watching the second hit off the rim and bounce in. Naclerio didn’t see either one, but listened to the roar of the Cardozo crowd.
Naclerio turned back to the game to watch as Thomas Jefferson’s desperation heave went wide, and the third-seeded Judges celebrated a 55-54 victory in PSAL Class AA boys’ basketball championship game at the Barclays Center Saturday. Naclerio’s eyes immediately welled up with tears after four years of playoff heartbreaks.
“It felt like yesterday was 1999 when I had this feeling,” he said.
Earlier in the afternoon, Cardozo (27-2) appeared to be headed for another tough-to-swallow defeat. A layup by Patrick Brown put Jefferson (21-10) up 54-49 with 1:30 left in the game. Salnave, considered the city’s next great guard, answered with a bucket and Marzuq Jimoh (11 points) came up with a steal that led to a dunk by Francisco Williams, who had 21 points. The Judges were down just 54-53 with 37 seconds left.
Jimoh stole another ball, missed a layup and Elijah McNeely couldn’t convert a putback. Jefferson sophomore Shamorie Ponds was fouled, but missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 11.3 to go. Salnave (16 points) drove right to the basket, was fouled and made his two shots from the line.
“I knew he would make the free throws,” Williams said.
Cardozo, which lost to Construction in the borough final, regrouped to became the first non-Brooklyn school to beat Brooklyn teams in every round of this year’s playoffs. The Judges topped Boys & Girls, South Shore, Brooklyn Collegiate and finally Jefferson. Brooklyn Collegiate and Jefferson had previously knocked off No. 2 Wings and No. 1 Lincoln. Ponds led Jefferson with 16 points and Brown had 15. The Orange Wave erased a seven-point half-time deficit and took a 37-35 lead into the fourth before seeing it slip away.
“I didn’t think [the Judges] could beat four Brooklyn teams in a row,” Jefferson Coach Lawrence “Bud” Pollard said. “They deserve it.”
Cardozo advances to play CHSAA champion Christ the King in the state Federation semifinals at 8:30 p.m. March 21 at the Times Union Center in Albany. The Judges said they were going to enjoy the city title with a meal and some video games before then returning to business.
“We are going to be up all night,” Williams said. “We will probably go to Marzuq’s house or Ray’s house. We are going to stay up all night, probably play 2K [games] and go to Hooters.”