By Rob Abruzzese
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Before the Jefferson Orange Wave played Lincoln in the Brooklyn borough playoffs last month, head coach Bud Pollard made the unlikely promise that his team would be able to beat the undefeated Railsplitters. Instead, Jefferson was beaten in a 19-point, lopsided victory that day at City College of New York.
Despite that tough loss, Pollard still felt that despite some of Lincoln's obvious strengths that his team was truly better and would eventually prove it on the court. The Orange Wave finally came through on his promise in the Public School Athletic League (PSAL) semifinals, beating the Railsplitters 77-74 to advance to the finals. They’ll face Cardozo at the Barclays Center on Saturday.
"We're a better team than them," Pollard said. "They might have Isaiah (Whitehead), who is the best player in the city, and Desi (Rodriguez), who is the best forward, but after that we're better than them. We're better."
It's hard to blame those that were skeptical going into the game. Lincoln won the city title last season and looked even better this year with four Division I players in their lineup including Whitehead, Rodriguez, Elisha Boone and Thomas Holley. Winning another city title seemed almost inevitable.
Jefferson, though, has a talented team that was the consensus No. 2 in Brooklyn AA, the toughest division in New York City. Their players have been a little inconsistent at times and they lost a pair of games early in the year when Pollard elected to forfeit a game to Lincoln as punishment for his players breaking team rules. However, they do have some of the top guards in the city.
Patrick Brown and Devonte Wilson are seniors and the team leaders with the experience of having been to the finals in JV or varsity in each of the previous three years. Then there is Daquaise Andrews, their leading scorer who transferred to Jefferson before this season, and Shamorie Ponds, one of the most talented sophomores in the city.
The turning point in this game might have been when Lincoln failed to come out as strong as they did in the previous two matchups. That allowed the Orange Wave to slowly gain momentum, with Jefferson closing out the first half with a 34-30 lead after Ponds nailed a three at the buzzer.
"Getting that lead at halftime was big for us," Brown said. "We had the momentum at that point and in the locker room coach just told us that if we kept playing that way that we could win the game.”
Jefferson kept that going in the second half when all four guards had hot hands and slowly kept building up the lead throughout the third. The Wave led by as much as 15 points when Wilson and Brown drained a pair of threes late in the quarter.
Lincoln answered back with a 9-0 run to start the fourth, but lost all momentum when Rodriguez fouled out with 4:26 left to play. That sparked a 10-0 run by Jefferson that left it with a 70-58 lead. When Brown picked up the and-one with 2:24 left to play, Lincoln head coach Dwayne "Tiny" Morton said that he felt like his team gave up on the game (Check out the entire interview with a “relieved Morton).
"They gave up a little bit too early. With two minutes left, when we were down 10. Every coach knows that with two minutes left, down 10, it's not that hard to come back from. Once they realized that they might lose you could see it on their face."
Brown and Ponds each finished with 21 points, Andrews had 20 and Wilson had 10. For Lincoln, Whitehead and Boone had 18 each, Rodriguez had 15 and A.J. Williams had 14.
After the game, Pollard called this the best team that he's ever coached and said it was probably the biggest win of his career. “I'm the new boss in town. I'm the big dog,” he said before he barked to emphasize his point.
Whitehead admitted that Lincoln might have looked past Jefferson with an eye on the state tournament and underestimated them after beating them so easily in the previous two meetings.
“All year we were talking about states and I think we just kind of forgot about the city championship,” Whitehead said. “They just came out hungrier and it showed in the way they competed.”
Pollard was most proud of the fact that he sent off Lincoln's coach with a loss in what will be the final high school game of his coaching career.
"I'm happy that I sent him out of here," Pollard boasted. "The one thing, he won't be at the Barclays. He might have had his run at the Garden, but he won't have no run at the Barclays. That's one thing I'm proud of that he won't get to that Barclays."
Pollard wouldn't guarantee a championship despite past guarantees that he would beat Lincoln. He said credited Cardozo coach Ron Naclerio for being the most well prepared coach in the city and said that his team has to keep up their hunger and intensity and that they might be too "nice" to win that game.
Pollard's players were much more confident in their ability to win on Saturday. "We're going to get the chip. We're going to pull it out," Ponds said confidently.