Cardinals are state champs!
The Cardinal Newman Cardinals won the rubber match with the Hammond Skyhawks 61- 45 and in turn won their first boys’ basketball championship since 1995 taking the SCISA 3A state title at the Sumter County Exhibition Center Saturday, February 23.
Senior Austin Ajukwa led the Cardinals with a game- high 23 points, but it was sophomore Jon Ragin that got the Cards going early. Ragin countered a basket from Hammond’s Xavier McDaniel and a 3-pointer from Sam Ulmer with two 3s of his own and a free throw to give Cardinal Newman a lead it would never surrender. Ajukwa and Joe Armstrong added baskets, but Hammond’s super freshman Seventh Woods hit a 3-pointer with one second left to end the first quarter, and the Cardinals led 11-9.
McDaniel then got tangled up with Cardinal Newman’s Jacob August and later Armstrong going for rebounds. Frustration got him, and he was called for an intentional foul. That started a 9-0 run by the Cardinals. Hammond’s Spencer Carlson finally broke the run with a conventional 3-point play, but Hammond could never fully break the Cardinal momentum again. McDaniel then picked up his third foul a minute later.
August made a couple of free throws, then Carlson and Cannon Smith got buckets for Hammond to close the gap to 24- 18. Cardinal Newman responded with jumpers from August and Ajukwa to take a 28- 18 lead into halftime.
Armstrong started the third quarter with a conventional 3-point play giving the Cardinals their biggest lead of the game so far, but Hammond fought back. Carlson got a basket then blocked a couple of shots leading to a breakaway for Woods. Another jumper from Carslon cut the Cardinal Newman lead to 32-24, but Ajukwa closed the quarter with seven points building the lead to 39-28. Ken Krupa got a bucket for Hammond, then Woods collected a steal and soared through the lane for a spectacular one-handed hammer dunk, but unfortunately for Hammond, the dunk was about a second behind the buzzer and didn’t count. The Cardinals led 39-30.
Not to be outdone by Woods, Ajukwa stole the ball to start the fourth quarter and threw down a monster dunk of his own that did count. Dandre Smith was able to respond with a bucket for Hammond, but then the Cardinals went on an 8-0 run before McDaniel finally stopped the bleeding with a basket for Hammond.
For the most part, the Cardinals spent the final three minutes at the free throw line. August’s free throw with 2:19 remaining pushed the lead to 55-37.
The Skyhawks did not quit, and perhaps sensing a championship in their grasp, the Cardinals got a little sloppy with two straight turnovers with less than two minutes to play. A free throw from Woods and five points from Carlson cut the Cardinal Newman lead to 57-45 with 1:03 remaining.
Ragin restored order for the Cardinals with a couple of free throws with 47 seconds left, and both sides emptied their benches. Hunter Gatling added a layup for Cardinal Newman sending the bench and Cardinal fans into a frenzy as the buzzer sounded, and the championship trophy returned to Forest Drive after a long absence.
Ragin and Armstrong finished with 11 points each for Cardinal Newman. August added seven, and Zakki Parker got five. D.J. Halfacre and Gatling each got baskets for the Cardinals. Ajukwa and August were named to the All- Tournament Team.
Woods and Carlson led Hammond with 14 points each. McDaniel finished with six, and Ulmer added five. Cannon Smith, Krupa, and Dandre Smith each got baskets for the Skyhawks. Carlson and McDaniel were named to the All-Tournament Team.