It was billed as a battle of senior guards, and it was. But by the time Friday night’s rivalry game ended with Christ the King standing atop an 84-69 defeat of Archbishop Molloy, it had become clear that the war was not really about Sean Johnson and Russell Smith. It was about the supporting cast.
“Dominykas Milka,” declared Christ the King head coach Joe Arbitello, when asked which player most stood out to him. “He was all over the boards. Defensively, he did an incredible job of helping out.”
CK’s Milka, a junior center, managed to score 20 points and secure 11 rebounds on a night on which Christ the King’s Johnson and Archbishop Molloy’s Smith were touching the ball more often than not. Johnson and Smith overcame the bumps and bruises of two physical defensive efforts to score 30 points each - in Smith’s case, 43 percent of his team’s point total.
In other words, it was a stalemate.
Johnson and Smith are two of the best basketball players in New York City, and Arbitello had praise for both. Of Smith, he said, “I don’t know what you have to do [to defend him]. If you come up with something, let me know.” Of Johnson, he said, “He’s the toughest kid I’ve ever coached. He plays with a lot of heart.”
Yet once Johnson and Smith’s point totals were accounted for and their input was stripped from the final score, the 54-39 remainder made clear where the game was won. While CK did rely on a largely three-man offense, its impact was great: Junior forward Maurice Barrow added 18 points to Milka’s 20. Arbitello also cited the contributions of junior guard Kareem Thomas, who “came in and gave us some great minutes.”
The team effort has made for a winning recipe this season, with Christ The King pulling away from the Brooklyn-Queens ‘AA’ division and headed for a division title.
The supporting cast was especially valuable on Friday because it is unlikely that Johnson would have been able to score much more than he did. He had sustained a bone bruise during a game in late January and said he entered the February 6 contest unsure of how his knee would respond.
.“During the first quarter it felt good, it felt real fine,” he said. “I was a little nervous I was going to hurt it. I haven’t practiced for several days.”
Archbishop Molloy, meanwhile, was not so generous in its support of Smith. While sharp-shooting senior guard/forward Ryan Dillon scored all of his nine from beyond the arc and senior forward Lebrandon Smith scored all of his 12 from within - fine totals, but inferior to Barrow’s and Milka’s - no one else did much for the Stanners.
One momentary departure from that rule was a hard-to-believe bucket by Molloy senior guard Malik Dean, who flicked up a shot while falling hard to the ground, drawing a foul, and watching the ball bounce around the rim and into the netting.
Overall, though, despite head coach Jack Curran’s expressed preseason desire to spread out the scoring, Molloy has relied on Smith to the point where the Royals devised a strategy based on his ubiquitous ball-handling.
“We knew he wasn’t really going to pass the ball,” Johnson said. “Just keep our hands up, and he’ll have to shoot over [us].”
The anecdotal evidence on Friday did point to a few cases where the 9-of-25 Smith missed an off-balance shot instead of passing to a teammate, but to be fair, Molloy’s shot-making was unfortunate no matter whose hands the ball departed from. In one sequence, the rushed Stanners took three wild shots in a row, capped by a long-range attempt from Smith that barely clipped the bottom of the rim.
The game’s rhythm was intense through all four quarters. Smith and Johnson each amassed four fouls. So did Dillon and Molloy senior forward Jin Hong, who was called for an intentional foul on Johnson with 50 seconds left.
At one point, a hard-charging Smith tried to drive past CK’s Roland Brown when the guard’s face bounced (somewhat comically) off the junior center’s chest. Smith, of course, responded by chucking a long, off-balance shot from his right shoulder that actually landed in the basket. “Count it!” he shouted.