GLENS FALLS, N.Y. - Watch Achraf Yacoubou dig in on defense, with his unwavering tenacity, quick feet constantly in motion, long arms poised to snatch away a careless dribble, and you can tell how much he loves the art of the steal. "If I lock someone up, that's like scoring points for me," said the talented junior guard for Long Island Lutheran.
Lutheran started slowly Friday night, allowing a 17-3 run in the first quarter, and never caught up, losing to Buffalo Nichols, 85-66, in a state Federation Class A semifinal.
The Crusaders hadn't played a game since March 1, and though the rust was evident, that wasn't the only reason Lutheran (20-8) failed to defend its state title. Nichols (23-7) had a lot to do with it.
The Vikings shot a spectacular 68 percent from the field in the first half (17 of 25), including seven three-pointers, to build a 47-32 halftime advantage. They featured an unstoppable inside-outside combination of Virginia-bound 6-8 center Will Regan (16 first-half points) and Stan Wier (18 points, four treys).
Hart Gliedman led Lutheran with 24 points. Yacoubou had 10 points. Nichols (23-7) will face Jamesville-DeWitt on Saturday night. The Red Rams, who lost to Lutheran in last year's final, defeated Bedford Academy, 67-54, behind Dajuan Coleman's Federation single-game record 31 rebounds.
As for the 6-5 Yacoubou, who had 10 points, he remembers Tyreke Evans being "better than me, but eventually I held my own. It made me a better player."
Evans, now a star on the Sacramento Kings, was a former high school teammate of Yacoubou's at American Christian Academy in Aston, Pa.
Ever since those days of practice duels with the one-and-done University of Memphis star, the fourth overall pick by Sacramento in last year's NBA draft, Yacoubou has accepted any defensive challenge that comes his way. "We ask him to cover the other team's best perimeter player," Lutheran coach John Buck said.
Said Yacoubou, "If you can play defense at the next level," he said, "you can go far in this game."
He's already come pretty far. Off an impressive summer in AAU ball plus his sophomore season, when he and Tobias Harris led the Crusaders to last year's state Federation Class A crown, Yacoubou earned a scholarship to Villanova last fall. "I wanted to get it out of the way," he said. "I felt comfortable with the coaches and I liked the business school. I didn't want to string the colleges along."
That's typical of Yacoubou, always thinking of others. He is humble off the court and unselfish on it. If he needs to score, as he did in the state semifinals a year ago, he delivers. If he needs to concentrate on defense, as he did in the final, when his lockdown on Syracuse-bound Brandon Triche of Jamesville-DeWitt helped win the title game, he also excels. "You just play the game of basketball," he said. "I'm not a selfish player. I like getting my teammates involved."