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WHITE PLAINS - On the opening few possessions Friday night, Stepinac very much looked like a team playing a nationally-ranked opponent.
Cardinal Hayes, the state's top-ranked team, pounded the ball inside, leaning on its superior size. And when the ball arrived on the perimeter, its highly-recruited sophomore guards rarely missed.
The Crusaders, playing in perhaps their most important game to date, rose to the challenge Friday night, rallying as a team and behind a thirsty home crowd. They handed Hayes, ESPN's 15th-ranked team in the nation, its first loss, 67-56.
"This was important for us," senior forward Isaiah Alexander said. "We had great preparation as a team. Coach really reinforced the things we were missing from last game. It was a 'We' thing. We just tried to be the best team we could be to get the win."
Alexander and fellow senior Sam Gibbs were consistent all night, but it was freshman guard Danny Carbuccia whose contributions transformed a one or two-possession, back-and-forth game into a Stepinac victory. He scored 11 of his 14 points in the second half to fuel the strong closing stretch.
"I've been playing with him since I was in third grade. We came up together," sophomore guard Boogie Fland said. "That man is a dog. He's going to be great."
Carbuccia flashed his talent early in the second half with a deep 3-pointer. He then carved around the defense to attack the paint for baskets or kick-out passes to open shooters.
"I found some weaknesses in the defense," said Carbuccia, who also had four assists. "I felt like I exposed them some times in the offensive end."
The defense was anchored by Alexander, senior Joel Baez and junior reserve Ben Lyttle, the latter of whom was especially physical with Hayes' hulking 6-foot-8 center Tobe Awaka.
The night also marked the first varsity meeting between Fland, ESPN's No. 12-ranked sophomore in the country, and his friend Ian Jackson, who is ranked No. 4.
Fland, who missed Stepinac's loss to Hayes in the Bronx back in December, contributed nine points on 4-of-11 shooting and had 10 rebounds and three assists.
Jackson led the Cardinals with 16 points, shot 6 of 14, and had nine rebounds and five assists.
"It's always fun playing against your brothers. It's always a good game," Fland said. "On the court, we're enemies. Off the court, it's all love. It's a fun thing. It's like LeBron and Melo when Melo wasn't on the Lakers."
Player of the game
Isaiah Alexander, Stepinac. The senior scored a game-high 20 points and had eight rebounds and three steals. He also split time defending Hayes big men and Jackson.
By the numbers
Stepinac (14-3) — Gibbs had 14 points, four rebounds, six assists. Baez added six points and three rebounds.
Cardinal Hayes (15-1) — Awaka had 14 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks. Elijah Moore also had 14 points and hit four 3-pointers.
"I told our guys, 'You showed the level you can play at.' I don't think we have played a complete game until tonight," Stepinac coach Pat Massaroni said. "We've had really good first halves. We've had really good second halves. We've had games where we played 20 minutes really well. I thought tonight we played well for 30 or 32 minutes."
Stepinac hosts St. Peter's on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. Hayes travels to Bishop Loughiln, also on Sunday.
This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Stepinac basketball beat nationally ranked Cardinal Hayes