By John Torenli
Don’t believe your own press clippings.
The age-old sports cliché holds significant meaning for the Orange Wave of Thomas Jefferson as they continue to prepare for their Public School Athletic League playoff opener next Wednesday against Brooklyn rival Paul Robeson.
After spending most of this season, not to mention the past decade, playing in the shadows of perennial Brooklyn AA powerhouses Lincoln and Boys and Girls, top-seeded Jefferson finds itself in the unfamiliar role of favorite entering the annual tournament for the city championship.
And they certainly earned the distinction. First by rolling past the Railsplitters and Kangaroos in the always-heated race for the Brooklyn AA Division regular-season title and then by knocking off B&G for the coveted Borough Championship two weekends ago.
Senior guard Thad Hall staked his claim as the best player in the city following the Wave’s victory 68-62 victory over the Kangaroos on Feb. 11 at York College. Jefferson coach Lawrence “Bud” Pollard felt his team had earned the right to be called the top squad in Brooklyn, if not the entire Big Apple.
“We proved who the best team in the city is today,” Pollard noted. “Now we have to win the [city] championship.”
But now that Jefferson, which has won its last 10 league games, is finally receiving the type of respect and adulation normally heaped upon its top-two Brooklyn rivals, Pollard believes his team faces a new and daunting challenge as the playoffs approach.
“It feels good, but it’s a double-edged sword,” Pollard told the Eagle in an e-mail correspondence this week. “Now, we can’t surprise anyone.”
While the element of surprise is certainly out the window, the Wave can take comfort in knowing both Lincoln and B&G are on a collision course to meet in the semifinals of the opposite playoff bracket as the respective No. 2 and 3 seeds.
That means No. 1 Jefferson could face one or the other, but not both, en route to the PSAL final at Madison Square Garden on March 17.
Unfortunately for Pollard, the Wave’s first playoff opponent gave them all they could handle back on Jan. 10 at Jefferson.
Robeson, which held on for a 41-40 victory at Lehman last Thursday to advance to the PSAL’s “Sweet 16,” suffered a 56-55 loss to the Wave that afternoon.
Jefferson was down three points entering the fourth quarter in that contest and needed a big performance from junior Jaquan Lynch (23 points) to pull out the win.
Underdog Robeson, which entered the playoffs as the No. 17 seed after winning only four of 14 Brooklyn AA games this season, has reeled off a modest win streak of four games entering the playoff showdown with Jefferson.
Junior Denzel Wilson was the lone player in double figures with 13 points during last week’s playoff win over Lehman as the Eagles managed only six points over the final eight minutes.
That type of offensive drought will certainly spell doom against an Orange Wave unit that has found a way to excel down the stretch in beating B&G twice and Lincoln once in the past month.
Jefferson also knocked off Catholic School rival Xaverian on Saturday at the Rucker High School Invitational as the 5-foot-11 Lynch scored 16 points and threw down a memorable jam to spark the come-from-behind 73-64 win. Hall added 22 points and took home MVP honors against the Bay Ridge school.
Most of the Waves’ impressive wins, however, came with Jefferson holding underdog status, as opposed to the weight of carrying the hopes and dreams of a program that has not won a city title since 1954. (That’s 58 years ago if you’re counting.)
The ’Roos and ’Splitters have combined to win nine of the last 10 city championships, with B&G topping Lincoln at the Garden for the crown last March.
Now, it’s the Wave’s turn to prove it can handle the pressure and thrive under the adversity of being expected to win. Pollard knows that begins with a victory next Wednesday against the Eagles.
“Everybody’s gunning for us!” he said. “So we have to be ready to protect our house.”
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Defending two-time city champion B&G will host Samuel Gompers in its playoff opener next Tuesday after the Panthers edged Manhattan Center for Science and Math, 64-60, in the opening round last week behind 31 points from junior Carlos Galan.
The ’Roos are doubtlessly still seething over a phantom 3-pointer that no one seems to remember from their BBC title-game loss to the Wave. Coach Ruth Lovelace cited the officiating error as “the difference in the game,” but the second-seeded champs know they are still in prime position to exact revenge next month at the Garden.
B&G beat Lincoln twice earlier this month, first in the regular-season finale at home, then at the Ocean Parkway school during the semifinals of the BBC.
Last season, the ’Roos entered the playoffs as the No. 2 seed after losing the borough championship to Jefferson and proceeded to reel off four straight wins, culminating with a 62-55 victory over Lincoln at MSG.
Lincoln’s rise back to the top will depend heavily on the healing powers of sophomore guard Isaiah Whitehead, who missed the BBC with an injured ankle.
Whitehead did look solid in his return to the court Tuesday night against arguably the best high school team in the nation, undefeated St. Anthony’s of New Jersey in Tuesday night’s 51-45 loss at Jersey City.
Though he managed only five points and six rebounds in limited playing time, the second-year playmaker appeared fit for duty as the ’Splitters prepare to host Beach Channel next Tuesday in their first playoff game.
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The girls’ AA basketball playoffs commence next week with several notable Brooklyn programs participating.
South Shore received a bye after grabbing the No. 1 seed following a brilliant 13-2 campaign under coach Anwar Gladden. Last year, the Lady Vikings lost the city title game to perennial champions Murray Bergtraum at MSG.
South Shore earned a measure of revenge with a 48-41 triumph over the Lady Blazers last Dec. 9 as senior Fannisha Price led the charge with 13 points and 11 rebounds.
The Vikings will meet either No. 8 Banneker or No. 9 Midwood in an all-Brooklyn quarterfinal at Hunter College on March 3.
Bergtraum, seeded second, will await the winner of the March 1 playoff opener between No. 7 Lincoln and No. 8 Brooklyn Collegiate.
No. 14 Boys and Girls will visit No. 3 Truman for a first-round encounter on March 1.
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In local college sports news, top-seeded Brooklyn College edged No. 4 Lehman, 64-58, Wednesday night at CCNY to advance to the finals of the women’s CUNYAC Championships against No. 2 Baruch on Saturday afternoon.
Senior center Justine O’Callahan, determined to lead BC to its first-ever NCAA Division III Tournament appearance, scored 16 points and grabbed eight rebounds for the Bulldogs (21-6).
“Coming into the game we knew what we needed to do,” said O’Callahan. “We wanted to prove ourselves from last year and we were able to do that tonight. Everyone stepped up and played great. I’m really proud of this team.”
“This is a testament to the heart we played with all season and how much we want it,” added BC coach Alex Lang. “But Saturday, we have a chance to do something very special for Brooklyn College.”
Read next week’s Eagle sports pages for a full recap of Saturday’s CUNYAC title game or log on to www.brooklyneagle.com.