The hopes of four years and five seniors may have been weighing on his shoulders, but Alex Hall was still running harder than he ever had. In the waning seconds before the sound of the buzzer - that awkward period in any basketball game in which a smooth sport becomes a staccato mess of attempted fouls - he had the rare chance to escape the game-saving jabs of the Cardozo defense and reach the basket untouched.
“I just attacked the basket,” he said. “Coach always said, ‘Go to the basket hard.’”
Not only did he do that, but his bucket added two points to a 50-47 lead, and he drew a foul with the ball in the air. Game over. Queens championship over. Congratulations to … Forest Hills?
“I told my young men, ‘We’re gonna be remembered forever,’ ” said head coach Ben Chobhaphand, a few seconds removed from a hug from his girlfriend and more handshakes than he can possibly recall.
The boys from Forest Hills very well might be. In upsetting perennial powerhouse Benjamin Cardozo 55-49 in the final game of the borough playoffs at Long Island University in Brooklyn, they won their school’s first-ever Queens championship.
They did so in stunning fashion, in a game that will be remembered for years. The Judges and Rangers pushed the title contest to overtime by the skin of Cardozo’s collective teeth. A jumper by junior guard Reynaldo Walters with 13.2 seconds left tied the score at 40, although a brilliant scramble by Andre Armstrong won Forest Hills a jump ball and nearly nixed the comeback.
With 1.1 seconds left, Hills’ Maurice Harkless, a sophomore guard/forward, slapped the ball off his palm and narrowly missed converting the inbounds pass to a game-winning bucket.
Prior to the Judges’ last-minute push to tie, the Rangers had trailed by as many as 10 points. They finally took the lead with 5:18 remaining in the fourth quarter, when Armstrong, a senior guard, swished two free throws to close a succession of Forest Hills jumpers and missed Benjamin Cardozo field goals.
So to overtime the Queens championship went, and there the Rangers took advantage of superior shot-blocking and free-throw shooting. While Cardozo hit only two of six foul shots in the extra period, Hills went 10-for-13, with Armstrong’s seven-for-eight dependability claiming center stage.
That the odds would ultimately tilt Forest Hills’ way became clear when Hall executed his fiercely fast three-point play and gave the Rangers a six-point lead. At this, the vocal crowd behind the Forest Hills bench began chanting “MVP” and launched a (closed) bottle of orange soda onto the court amid its jubilance. At this, Chobhaphand couldn’t suppress a smile - although he did clear the court of its litter with the evident franticness of a man trying to escape a referee’s wrath.
Not a bad moment for a senior guard/forward who had been suspended from the team for nearly a month for an undisclosed violation.
“I still can’t believe it,” Hall said. “This is why I came back. I shouldn’t be here, to be honest with you guys. [Chobhaphand] didn’t speak to me for a whole week.”
Hall and Armstrong each scored 17 points, with 16 of Hall’s coming from the fourth quarter on. Chobhaphand remembers Hall telling him that “we’re gonna go out a champion” before the game started.
“I’ve been waiting for this since sophomore year,” Armstrong said. “Alex came up huge.”
Cheerleaders, fans, and players all congregated at half-court when the upset was complete. They celebrated the conclusion of a Queens season that saw the Rangers go 14-4, with losses to Thomas Edison (twice), Cardozo, and Campus Magnet. Forest Hills finally overcame the Thomas Edison roadblock in the semifinals of the championship tournament, besting the Inventors 65-53 on February 12 after topping Beach Channel in the first round two days earlier.
Regular-season champion Cardozo, meanwhile, went 17-1 in Queens play, with the Judges’ only blemish coming against - you guessed it - Forest Hills, by four points on January 30. They beat Bayside and Campus Magnet on their way to the title game on February 15.
What’s the Rangers’ secret to beating Cardozo twice?
“They have a feeling like they own Queens,” Chobhaphand said, “so we always come out with an edge.”
Chobhaphand, who played at Forest Hills, has seen a longtime dream come to fruition with Sunday’s victory. He played his seniors at most opportunities, saying afterward that “if they’re gonna win this game, my seniors are going to be on the court [and] write their own history.”
A former Forest Hills basketball player himself, Chobhaphand has a vision stronger than most of a target on Cardozo’s back. He has looked to the Judges as a team that could use a challenger.
Back on December 3, he told The Courier: “This is my fifth year coaching. I want to be on the same table and in the same conversation. That’s our goal at Forest Hills. … We are not trying to be a one-hit wonder. We want to be mentioned with the Cardozos and the Campus Magnets.”
Two and a half months later, no one doubts that Forest Hills has joined the club.