Long Island Lutheran captured the 2019 state Federation basketball championship...

Long Island Lutheran captured the 2019 state Federation basketball championship on March 23 in Glens Falls. Credit: HANS PENNINK/Hans Pennink

Rock bottom came in late January and it was a look-in-the-mirror moment for the Long Island Lutheran boys basketball team. The Crusaders were deemed very good from the start, so good as to be immune to lapses like the one they had that day in Florida. Yet there they sat in the locker room after St. Louis Vachon High came back from 15 down in the fourth quarter to hand them an overtime loss.

“It was the peak moment of frustration,” senior Tyler Stephenson-Moore said. “Our culture has always been about winning and we needed to get back to it.”

The Crusaders were 13-2 after that defeat and coach John Buck wrote on the board in that locker room “25-2,” the record Lutheran would have to win out and capture a state championship.

And that’s when the Crusaders decided to be great.

Long Island Lutheran rattled off the nine wins to reach the state Federation tournament and downed PSAL champ South Shore in the semifinals and Catholic champion Christ the King in the title game. The Crusaders won those games by an average of 22 points for their state-best eighth Federation crown and first since 2012.

Capturing the championship also rinsed away the bitter taste LuHi carried for a year after a scoring error stripped them of a timeout in a 2018 semifinal with the score tied 72-72 and sent them to a 76-72 loss to Stepinac. It was especially meaningful for junior Andre Curbelo and senior Essam Mostafa, key LuHi players in that game.

“Last year came to a frustrating, discouraging ending,” Buck said. “For them to win this year, it sort of makes sense.”

Curbelo emerged as the Crusaders go-to player after Buck challenged him following a loss to Charlotte (N.C.) Christian. Buck said “he stepped up and learned to be that guy.” Curbelo averaged 16.1 points, totaled a combined 54 in the last two games and was selected to Newsday’s all-Long Island first team.

After scoring 31 in the win over South Shore in Glens Falls, Curbelo declared “we didn't come here to win — we came here to destroy people.” And while that might sound unsportsmanlike at first glance, it actually dovetailed with Buck’s message in Florida: “play as hard as you can and as smart as you can and never let up,” Stephenson-Moore said.

Stephenson-Moore, also a Newsday All-Long Island first-teamer, was second on the team in scoring as 12.7 points per game and became the squad’s defensive stopper; he held Christ the King leading scorer Ryan Myers to four points in the season finale. Buck described him as “tough, willfull and everything you’d want in a player.”

The Crusaders also got an x-factor in 6-8 Brentwood transfer Zed Key, who was third on the team in scoring with an 11.3-point average and never took issue with playing the sixth-man role. “He set a great example with his selflessness,” Buck said.

“This was a dream season for us,” Stephenson-Moore said. “This was a bunch of elite players coming together and doing what it took to be an elite team. Winning the championship was the most satisfying feeling.”

CRUSADERS' road to the championship

State Federation semifinal

Brooklyn South Shore, 77-53

Federation championship

Christ the King, 51-31

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