A 17-point fourth-quarter lead had been reduced to only eight in what seemed like the blink of an eye and suddenly the Horace Greeley Quakers needed someone to step up and stop the Mt. Vernon surge in Sunday afternoon’s Section 1, Class AA championship game.
Out of the left corner, just beyond the 3-point arc, senior guard Christoph Sauerborn answered the call. With a flick of his left wrist, he sent another one of his high-arching jump shots swishing through the basket.
Sauerborn’s 3-pointer, his fifth of the day, with 3:42 on the clock all but ended the Knights’ fourth-quarter comeback bid. Moments later, the Quakers’ lead was back up to 15 points and then it was just a matter of time before they would be celebrating a 46-35 victory over the perennial power by hoisting the Gold Ball at midcourt inside the Westchester County Center.
“It meant the world to me, it was surreal,” said Sauerborn about the feeling he had as the final seconds ticked off the clock and the Quakers ended their 40-year title drought. “I mean, all the hard work that we put in throughout the year, throughout past years, ever since I was a kid and first picked up a basketball. And it all paid off today.”
Sauerborn finished with a game-high 20 points, while sophomore star Nick Townsend added 17 to go along with 13 rebounds and the tourney MVP award, as the Quakers earned a berth in the state tournament’s opening round on Tuesday afternoon against Section 9 champ Newburgh Free Academy at SUNY New Paltz.
“It’s just an unreal feeling,” said Quakers head coach Matt Simone as his giddy players celebrated the school’s first basketball title since 1980. “It’s everything we’ve worked for since Day One, everything that these guys have wanted. They set their goals from Day One and here we are achieving it. So it’s surreal and I’m extremely proud of how these guys played today.”
The second-seeded Quakers, now riding an 18-game winning streak, kept the fourth-seeded Knights off the scoreboard for nearly the first five minutes. But back-to-back 3-pointers from the left elbow by Troy Hupstead and Nazir Davis gave Mt. Vernon its only lead of the day, 6-5, with a minute remaining in the opening quarter.
Greeley jumped ahead for good, though, when Chris Melis converted a fast-break layup on a pass from his younger brother with seven seconds left in the period. The Knights were still within 11-10 after a Hupstead basket with 1:40 remaining in the half before Sauerborn erupted for six points in 15 seconds with a 3-ball from the left wing and then a conventional 3-point play on a runner from the right baseline.
The first half ended with Townsend, who scored 11 of his points in the opening two quarters, tossing in a shot from right of the lane that increased the Greeley advantage to 19-10.
“Mt. Vernon’s a great team, so we knew we’d have to have a big defensive focus,” said Townsend. “We executed well. Everyone played great defense and we were able to slow ‘em down, for at least three quarters. So it was big.”
“The big goal for us was to hold them to as few points as possible,” added Sauerborn, “and I think we did a great job with that.”
A couple of minutes into the second half, Sauerborn connected on a 3-pointer from the left corner that started a 6-0 Greeley spurt and opened up a 13-point cushion. Another Sauerborn trey from the left corner, followed soon by his fast-break layup off a long outlet pass from Townsend gave the Quakers a 30-15 lead. Townsend’s second buzzer-beating basket, this time on a put-back, allowed Greeley to take a 32-17 lead into the fourth quarter.
Yet another left-corner 3-pointer from the sharp-shooting Sauerborn 45 seconds into the final period provided the Quakers with their largest lead of the afternoon, 35-18. But the Knights, appearing in the sectional final for the 22nd consecutive time, finally rose to their Greeley challenge with an 11-2 run highlighted by a pair of 3-point shots from Irvin Patrick.
With just over four minutes left in the game, the Quakers’ lead had been whittled down to 37-29 and it no longer seemed certain they would be the ones receiving the Gold Ball. But Sauerborn, who had endured a difficult weekend shooting the ball back in late December when the Quakers competed at the County Center in the Slam Dunk Tournament, was about to deliver the final dagger for Mt. Vernon.
His clutch 3-pointer restored the Quakers’ double-digit lead and quelled the Knights’ late comeback bid. Townsend followed with a pair of free throws and then Melis added a layup, again assisted by his brother, Connor. Just as quickly as it had disappeared, Greeley’s big lead had been restored.
“Man, he really turned it on,” said Townsend after watching Sauerborn’s second-half shooting display. “We have so much confidence in him. He’s a terrific shooter. We knew if we kept getting him the ball, he would start hitting them. He came up big for us.”
“All he needs is that one shot,” said Simone. “You know, he’s a shooter, he’s a scorer. After that first shot went in, once he saw that first three, or whatever he had, go through the net, I knew from then on he would have a great game.”
The Quakers had advanced to the championship game with a 71-56 victory over New Rochelle on Friday evening. Townsend finished with a game-high 26 points, while Chris Melis added 17 and Sean Dunleavy 12 in a game that had eight lead changes in the first quarter and was tied at 31-apiece at halftime.
Melis and Sauerborn were both limited by serious foul trouble, and Townsend took a hard spill under the basket midway through the second quarter with the Quakers trailing by four points. But Greeley made 14 of its 16 foul shots in the fourth quarter to gain revenge on the Huguenots, who had beaten the Townsend- and Melis-less Quakers at the Slam Dunk Tourney.
“A true team win tonight,” said Simone after the victory over the Huguenots. “The guys wanted it. When we saw we would be matched up against New Rochelle tonight, the guys were excited. Even though we weren’t at full strength when we played them here at the Slam Dunk Tournament, they beat us. So our whole team wanted to avenge that loss.”
With their two huge wins at the County Center in the Section 1 playoffs, now the Quakers’ quest turns to even bigger things.
“Yeah, we’ve got a really tough Newburgh team on Tuesday,” said Simone. “So we’ll take tomorrow to prep for that and hope to keep this run going.”
“State title,” added Sauerborn. “We want the state title. We’re not done yet.”