Kem Nwabudu wasn’t feeling the pressure that comes with playing in a Long Island championship game.
The 5-11 center was a force inside the three-point line, knocking down mid-range jumpers and providing punch in the paint, acting as the Elmont girls basketball team’s go-to option in halfcourt sets.
She scored eight of her 20 points in the fourth quarter, leading the Spartans to a 58-51 win over a gritty Mount Sinai team Saturday in the Long Island Class A title game at SUNY Old Westbury, representing Elmont’s first Long Island title since 1992.
The Spartans will play in the state Final Four next weekend at Hudson Valley CC in Troy.
A furious comeback from the Mustangs closed the deficit to five at 56-51 after Victoria Johnson (12 points, seven assists) made two free throws with 54.7 seconds left.
Brooke Cergol (10 points) started an 11-3 run with a three-pointer with 2:01 remaining, but Thybulle made two free throws with 27 seconds left to produce the final score.
Nwabudu is a confident player and said she doesn’t let the stage impact her performance. But she was relieved to see that the Mustangs did not double-team her like other playoff opponents had done this season. That allowed her to go to work.
“It felt like I had some breathing space,” said Nwabudu, who also had 14 rebounds. “Previous playoff games, I hadn’t really been doing my best. They’d been limiting my arsenal, my offense. In this game, there was no excuse for me not to score.”
The rest of the Spartans also felt like they had room to breathe after a dominant showing in the first three quarters. Two free throws from Zhaneia Thybulle (14 points, six assists) matched Elmont’s largest advantage at 42-25 with a minute left to play in the third.
Relentless defense for all four quarters forced the Mustangs into errant passes and turnovers, allowing Elmont to run and gets its points in transition.
“Defense wins games. Without defense, you can’t win a game,” Thybulle said.
“Our defense is our offense,” said guard Jada Hernandez, who had 12 points. “That’s what our coach tells us every day. If our defense is good, then our offense will be great.”
Steals and rebounds were just the beginning. Constant full-court pressure, smart traps on the perimeter and a zone defense that immediately closed on shooters stifled the Mustangs until they broke through in the fourth.
It’s not surprising how much Elmont hones its craft on defense.
“Every. Single. Day,” Nwabudu said. “A good hour and a half of practice, that’s what we do. Every time.”
Other teams take notice of the effort and know that a game against Elmont means a game in which every point needs to be worked for. Mount Sinai coach Michael Pappalardo said the Spartans defense was impressive.
“I hand it to them,” he said. “They’re a very athletic team, and they did a great job today.”
Coach Tom Magno praised his team’s effort on defense and said they deserve the attention that comes with winning a Long Island championship. Still, he reflected on an old friend that he has remembered in a special way the past few games.
Magno, a former assistant, took over in 2007 after former coach Gregg Petrocelli tragically died during a playoff game.
“I have an orange Gatorade bottle over there, which he always brought to every game,” Magno said. “I mean, it’s for the kids; it’s for them. But certainly, for myself, I’m thinking about Gregg. I brought it to last week’s game. I brought it today. As long as we can keep the train rolling, I’ll keep bringing it.”