As the sun dipped below the horizon and its orange glow spilled into DeWitt Clinton’s second floor gym on Valentine’s Day, the Governors prepared for their first game of the Bronx Borough playoffs against the Adlai Stevenson Ambassadors.
Clinton hadn’t lost a game this season, both in-and-out of conference, dominating every team they’ve played. Each week they’d been beating opponents by 20 or 30 points, and as the playoffs were nearing, the question became whether they’d been challenged enough during the regular season to be prepared for the bigger, better teams they’d face in the playoffs.
The Ambassadors, a Bronx AA school, was one of those bigger and better teams. The Governors lost, 81-75, ending their undefeated run at 20-1 and an opportunity to be the Bronx champions.
They will get a shot at the citywide title next month after seedings were announced Monday night. The team received the three seed in the A Division, but no opponent is listed although there is a 5 p.m. tip-off scheduled.
Coach Ballerini wants the team to stay focused on the task at hand and away from setting any expectations. As far as they’re concerned, Coach Ballerini and the boys only have one game left in the season to focus on.
“Stevenson was really well coached,” Clinton head coach Chris Ballerini said. “They came out with a game plan and they executed better. This was a great learning experience for us as we get prepared for the next step in the season.
“I think we understand what that game against Stevenson was and the errors that we made. We’ve already had some really good practices since then, trying to clean some things up.”
It was clear from the beginning that Stevenson had the better shooters and was executing better on the offensive end. To make up for it, Clinton battled its way to the rim and put immense pressure on defense and in transition, showing some of the hallmark traits that got them this far in the season. They picked up some fouls along the way.
Stevenson pulled ahead to an early 22-15 lead by the end of the first quarter, with notable play from their guards and impressive three-point shots from senior Francisco Demers. The Governors tried to increase the pressure in the second quarter, notably led by senior guard Jomauri Peña (19 points), whose lightning reflexes have been a game-changer all season.
He forced two back-to-back turnovers, stripping the ball from behind and taking it in for an open layup. Just as momentum started to shift back towards Clinton, either Demers or senior Boubacar Balde would make enough space and knock down a three-pointer.
The half ended with Stevenson up 34-31.
Intent on making a statement, Peña started the third quarter with another set of back-to-back strip turnovers and ended them with a jumper from the top of the key, giving the Governors their first lead of the game at 35-34.
Stevenson’s Demers then hit two more huge threes from way past the line, and hit two more by the end of the quarter for 12 points alone. The most impressive play from Clinton’s side was from senior guard Jason Coachman (28 points), who displayed amazing patience and finesse under the basket. At one point he led a fast break and, instead of stopping for the jump shot, made a daring cut between two Stevenson players easily a foot taller than him and completed the layup.
In the last quarter, down 70-54, Clinton looked stale and demoralized, but the Governors mustered up a 10-point run to go for the win. But Peña hit a three, Coachman made another amazing cut to lay it in and senior Angel Felix hit another clutch three. Then Peña finished off the flurry by forcing another turnover and laying it in to make it 70-64. Ultimately, the Governors would face some foul trouble and would miss two opportunities to pull ahead in the final 2 minutes.
Despite the tough loss, Coach Ballerini feels this was a good learning experience going into the citywide playoffs.
“No matter who we’re going to be matched up with it’s going to be a gauntlet,” he said. “You got to win a number of games just to get back to the Final Four, where we were last year.
“We know that it’s going to be a huge challenge, and you’re only promised one game. Whatever team we’re matched up with at the beginning, that’s it, that’s the end ball for us. Everything after that doesn’t really matter.”