St. James returns to Top 28 tournament

Published 11:45 pm Tuesday, March 11, 2014


LAPLACE — It’s been 13 years since the St. James boys basketball team has graced the Top 28 tournament. That drought ends Thursday.

The Wildcats (20-12) are set to face off with No. 2 seeded Lakeview (27-4) in the Class 2A semifinals, tip off set for 2:45 p.m. 

St. James had an up-and-down start to the season, with a number of players occupied into basketball season due to the football team’s quarterfinal run and others sidelined with injury.

But the Wildcats got healthy with the turn of the new year and have been strong in 2014, going 13-3 since a 66-55 win over West St. John to kick off January. St. James’ only losses in that 16 game span have come to Riverside, twice, and to Class 5A Dutchtown. Those two teams have combined for a 58-10 record.

One of those losses to Riverside, an 81-69 Rebels home win, opened eyes, as the Wildcats were one of the few teams to push the Riverside during its 26-game win streak.

“We always felt like this group had the chemistry with one another to do some things,” said St. James coach James Smith. “We just needed to get everyone back.”

Lakeview, meanwhile, has won 15 straight games and 20 of its last 21. 

“There are no soft landings once you get to the Top 28,” said St. James coach James Smith. “Only four teams are left standing. If you’re here, it means you’re a force to be reckoned with.”

Boasting a roster packed with size and athleticism, the Gators will try to push the tempo. Lakeview has scored 80 points or more 16 times this season and have topped 90 in seven of those. 

St. James, meanwhile, earns its stripes defensively. It has only allowed even 70 points on three occasions, two of those to Riverside, and in the postseason the team is allowing just 57 points per game. 

Like St. James, Lakeview is also in the midst of a breakthrough. The Gators will make their first Top 28 appearance since 2004 on Thursday. 

Guard Tay Hardy is one of Lakeview’s most dangerous threats. His game-high 25 paced the Gators in their 72-63 quarterfinal win over Many. Gerald Bush (10 points), Tray Kirkendoll (10 points) and Brent Toussaint (11 points) also each made an impact in that win. 

As conventional wisdom often suggests, senior-laden teams perform well in tournament play, and this Wildcats team fits the bill. St. James starts four seniors in brothers Jason and Jonathan Favorite, D’Kwan Sandolph and Raylan Kennedy. A fifth senior, Malik Joseph, is a key player off the bench.

“Those guys form our core, our identity,” said Smith. “Those guys share a bond and they’re all fearless.”

Kennedy sat out last season after transferring to St. James and added some considerable experience and punch to that senior core.

Those players were only spectators when St. James made its last run to the Top 28, Smith noted, and the coach said that now it’s time to flip roles.

“Now they’re on the stage, and those guys from the past are watching you,” said Smith. “We’re going up there to represent St. James. Our team is 100 percent home grown, and that’s something that we really take pride in. It’s big for us.”

The seniors aren’t the only threats by any stretch. On Friday night, a freshman took charge: Lowell Narcisse’s game-high 20 points led the way in a comeback 63-60 victory at Episcopal in the 2A quarterfinals. 

He scored 11 points in the fourth quarter. Sandolph scored 15 points and Kennedy added 10. 

That was the second dramatic comeback win of the postseason for St. James, which trailed by halftime in a regional round game against third-seeded Dunham. 

Jason Favorite led the way in that win, scoring 17. Jonathan Favorite and Narcisse each added 10. 

“All of these kids have accepted the challenge before them,” said Smith. “They’re playing defense and putting in the work because they want to advance.’

“And once you get to this point, nobody wants to go home. It keeps building.”