NEWBURGH – The chants of “MVP” rang out in Mount Saint Mary’s Kaplan Center as Jah’likai King attacked the basket, finished and was fouled.
Newburgh’s low-keyed sophomore had a burning desire from the game’s morning tip, looking to avenge an earlier two-point loss to Pine Bush. Nothing was going to stop the 6-foot King from getting inside the paint, even if Pine Bush 6-8 forward Chris Cain was protecting the rim.
Newburgh’s silent assassin, King finished many of his driving layups over the outstretched Cain. His 21-point, second-half performance powered Newburgh Free Academy to its first Section 9 Class AA title since 2014. King finished with 31 points, almost half of Goldbacks’ total in a decisive 66-52 victory.
“I wanted to win the game,” King said. “We lost to them the second (regular-season meeting, 54-52) and I felt embarrassed. We should have never lost. I wanted to take over. I wanted to win the game straight from the jump. I stayed aggressive and kept playing.”
Newburgh (20-2) advances to the state Class AA opening round where it will play the winner of Sunday’s Section 1 championship game between Mount Vernon and Horace Greeley. The tip is 4 p.m. Tuesday at SUNY New Paltz.
“At times, I have to push him (King) to be aggressive,” Newburgh coach Frank Dinnocenzio said. “JK sometimes is so unselfish because he doesn’t want to let anybody down. He says, ‘I don’t want to look selfish and I don’t want to let the team down.’ I told him, ‘You are letting the team down when you are not being aggressive.’”
Before King stepped back on the court for the second half with the score deadlocked at 29-29, Nakai Wheeler reminded his teammate to stay on the attack.
“I always tell him when we practice, ‘There’s nobody better,’” Wheeler said.
Nobody was better in the second half. King’s driving was essential as Newburgh struggled from beyond the arc, making just one 3-pointer. One of the few times that King didn’t get into the paint, he was tackled by Kenny Holland.
“He made everything look easy,” said Newburgh junior forward Amarri Tice, who had nine points. “He slashes to the basket. He just elevates and lays it in.”
Newburgh’s defense also came out aggressively after the break, forcing seven Pine Bush turnovers in the third quarter. The Goldbacks, ranked ninth among the state’s Class AA teams, started the second half with an 8-0 run and didn’t relinquish the lead.
Pine Bush (16-7), which made just three field goals in the third quarter, pulling within 47-44 on Nate Jaloszynski’s 3-pointer with 5:59 left. Newburgh responded with a 9-0 run started with another King layup.
Cain, who averaged 24 points in the regular season, was limited to 18. He scored four points in the final moments.
“We ran into a very athletic Newburgh team,” Pine Bush coach Steve Distefano said. “They dominated us on the glass with second-shot opportunities. We knocked them off earlier in the year and they had a big chip on their shoulder today.”
“He’s (Chris) been dealing with double and triple teams all year and physicality all year. They got the best of him today. But it doesn’t take away anything that he’s done for us this entire season and what he’s done for our community.”
As Wheeler put it, Newburgh prevailed in the “tiebreaker” between the teams. Wheeler and his teammates posed with the section championship plaque. Then, fans swarmed King, congratulating him on his record day.
“It’s special,” King said. “Coach has always wanted it (a section title). Last year, we lost in the first round. I wanted to get a win for coach and make it special for him.”