BINGHAMTON – Thursday afternoon’s fifth-place game was the last time Holy Cross would take the court together in 2010. But instead of an end, it felt like a beginning.
For the first time this season, the Knights looked whole. Though senior forward Marcus Hopper missed much of the Queens school’s dominant 70-51 victory over Mesa (Ariz.) in its STOP-DWI Holiday Classic, juniors Mairega Clarke and Will Davis were omnipresent. In just their fifth game of the season because of injury, the two combined for 22 points, Clarke added 10 rebounds and Davis handed out four assists.
“It was a confidence booster, definitely,” said the 6-foot-3 Davis, one of the better sophomores in the city last winter.
Davis, who underwent offseason knee surgery – which cost him the entire preseason and the Knights’ first six games – had a hop to his step and sank a pair of 3-pointers. He provided an immediate spark with nine first-half points. Clarke was just as important, if not more so, filling the void left by Hopper off the glass and by blocking three shots.
“Right before the league season, they needed something to give them confidence, to show, ‘OK, I’m back, I’m as good as last year, nothing has changed,'” said Conti, who led Holy Cross with 28 points and 12 rebounds and earned all-tournament honors.
Cross was unable to slow down Mesa star Jahii Carson, who went for 36 points — he did need 25 shots to get there — and set the tournament scoring mark with 109 points. He broke the previous record of 100 set by Charles Jones, then of Bishop Ford, in 1992. But his teammates managed just 15 points otherwise and Cross’ lead never got into single digits in the second half.
Holy Cross coach Paul Gilvary gave much of the credit to Conti and the two juniors, Clarke and Davis. Their presence changes everything for Holy Cross (8-3). The two make the Knights more versatile and not quite as reliant on the perimeter because the 6-foot-5 Clarke can score in the paint and Davis can create off the dribble. Cross can actually go somewhat big with Clarke, Hopper and Conti up front and Davis at shooting guard.
Gilvary planned to use Davis more on Thursday because he’s such a good defender and Holy Cross was facing Carson, one of the best guards in the country. Then when Hopper went out with a sore left shoulder, Clarke was needed even more. For the first time since the two returned, they didn’t show any rust.
“It was nice to see,” Gilvary said. “It’s not a question of talent, it’s not a question of injury — they’re healthy. They are both good players. It’s just a matter of them getting back into the rhythm of things.”
The win was significant for the Knights, even if fifth place might not sound like much. Their only loss of the tournament came to Imhotep Charter (Pa.), the eventual champion. Holy Cross was right there against the two-time Philadelphia Public School champs but wilted down the stretch. Afterward, Conti talked about needing to get tougher and it seemed to happen overnight. They rebounded with a come-from-behind victory over New Rochelle and blistered Mesa, one of the top teams from Arizona.
“Everyone’s confident right now,” Conti said. “It was a very imporant win — even though it’s not a championship — because we played a very good team with probably a McDonald’s All-American.”