By Larry Moko
Guard Bardhi Popaj of the Cathedral Gaels has never won a high school basketball championship at the midget, junior or senior level. But he’s hoping to end that five-year drought Tuesday, Feb. 21 at McMaster’s Burridge Gym when the Gaels take on the Cardinal Newman Cardinals for the 2016-17 Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic Athletic Association title.
Second-place Cathedral qualified with a 65-49 semifinal playoff victory Wednesday over the visiting St. Thomas More Knights. In the other semifinal, at Newman, the first-place Cardinals remained undefeated by topping the Bishop Tonnos Titans, 67-39.
“I feel confident in our ability to win the championship,” Popaj said. “Newman has beaten us all three times, but we’ve had some good hard battles against them. I think our chances are pretty good. They are a little bigger than us, so we’ll need to box out.”
Cathedral and Newman will also be facing each other in the midget and junior championship games which are part of Tuesday’s tripleheader at Mac beginning at 3 p.m.
The fourth-place Knights went on an 8-0 run at the start of the third quarter to take a 31-28 lead. However, the Gaels regained a 32-31 advantage on a driving layup by forward Nathan Bilamu and never trailed after that. The Gaels entered the fourth quarter with a five-point cushion, 42-37.
“It was a good team effort,” Bardhi said. “We came out and really played hard.”
Michael Ssemanda led the Cathedral attack with 19 points. Bilamu and point guard Hezekiah Dhuman added 11 points each while Popaj chipped in with nine.
For the Knights, Sami Jahan and Diar Abdul Allah netted 15 points apiece and Efosa Omorogbe contributed 13.
“In the third quarter we turned it up defensively and played a little more physical,” Cathedral coach Mark Maga said. “Offensively, we just played within ourselves. We ran our offence and made sure we got a shot, rather than rushing it and jacking it up. We ran plays and tried to get the mismatches.”
Maga said one of the team’s best players (senior point guard Nathan Morris) suffered an injured knee during the last game of regular season and will be sidelined for at least several more weeks. And, against More, that meant added responsibility for Dhuman.
“We had to change up our offence a bit,” former HWCAA all-star Popaj said.
Said Maga: “Hezzie played phenomenal. I thought it was his best game of the year. He was in control and didn’t play like a Grade 11.”
The Cathedral coach also praised the efforts of Popaj.
“Bardhi is like a coach out there,” Maga said. “He kind of does a little bit of everything. He’s tough and he’s mentally tough. Today, he was sick with the flu but still came out. We can count on him.
“I’m hard on him more so than the other guys. I know he can take it.”
Cathedral (8-4) had defeated More (6-6) in both of their regular-season meetings. The Gaels haven’t won a city senior championship since 2008.
At Newman, the Cardinals got 27 points from Maliek Gordon en route to their victory over sixth-place Tonnos. Other top scorers for Newman were Nick Rakas, with 15, and Dejaun Southe, with 10.
Jack Kyprianou replied with 14 points for Tonnos.
“There’s absolutely zero pressure on us,” Maga said of the upcoming matchup against Newman. “We can just go out there and play our game. I think we match up the best with them.”
In the junior semifinal at Cathedral, the first-place Gaels (11-1) avenged a regular-season loss to fifth-place Brebeuf (5-7) with 60-54 decision over the Braves.
Zach Powell paced the Gaels with 19 points. Malcolm Maganda added 16 and Mark Cadet tossed in 13.
Brebeuf, which trailed 46-32 with eight minutes remaining, cut the margin down to four points with 68 seconds left. The leading scorers for the Braves were Daniel Graham (16) and Gianluca Pontillo (12).
In the midget semifinal, the undefeated Gaels breezed to an 82-25 victory over the visiting St. Thomas More Knights. Dylan Ovando and Mason Johnson scored 15 and 11 points respectively for the Gaels.
The Cardinal Newman juniors got a 22-point performance by Elijah Mullin and 13 by Alban Pllana in its 55-26 win over St. Thomas More. The Newman midgets punched their ticket to the final with a 58-35 decision over St. Jean de Brebeuf.
Source: Marnie Jadon