Four years ago, Benjamin Cardozo High School freshman Francisco Williams promised longtime coach Ron Naclerio that he would win him his first city championship since 1999.
In Williams’ final game as a member of the Judges, on the biggest stage in New York City basketball, he fulfilled that promise.
“A lot of people doubted us, they didn’t think we would make it this far,” Williams said. “It’s still unbelievable.”
On Saturday afternoon, Bayside’s Cardozo defeated Brooklyn’s Thomas Jefferson High School 55-54 to capture the Public School Athletic League “AA” division city championship at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
With the win, they became the first non-Brooklyn school in city history to defeat all Brooklyn teams in postseason play.
However, with 30 seconds remaining in the game, it appeared as if Cardozo would fall one win short of rewriting history.
The Judges were down 54-53 and had just missed two straight layups before a foul sent Jefferson star sophomore Shamorie Ponds to the free-throw line.
Ponds missed the free throw and after a Cardozo rebound, Rashond Salnave was fouled as he attempted a game-winning layup with just two seconds remaining.
In one of the most pressure-packed situations a basketball player could be in, the game and the city title Williams promised his coach were solely in Salnave’s hands.
“Some people say I’m only a sophomore and that’s a big feeling,” Salnave said. “But I knew what I had to do.”
The crowd of around 5,000 people roared as Salnave took the first shot.
Swish. Tie game.
He then took a short walk around mid-court to “refresh” his mind and help him concentrate on the next shot: the basket that would link his name with Cardozo basketball for years to come or the miss that could potentially cost his school the championship that was promised to Naclerio years ago.
“Since I was young, I had that feeling,” he said, when asked if he desired to have the ball in his hands in the final seconds. “To live the moment, it felt like a dream.”
The only eyes in the arena not fixed solely on Salnave’s shots were Naclerio’s.
“I didn’t have the heart to look at the foul shots,” Naclerio said. “I actually turned around and closed my eyes.”
Swish. The Judges lead.
A desperation full-court heave by Jefferson fell short at the buzzer, and an emotional Naclerio began sobbing on the bench. After every member of Cardozo dove on each other at half-court in a joyous celebration, Williams and his beloved coach tearfully embraced. A promise fulfilled.
“It was unbelievable. When I saw him crying, it brought tears to my eyes,” Williams said. “When I was a freshman, I told him I would get him a championship before I graduate … it felt pretty good to come out here and do that.”
Williams finished with a game-high 21 points, while Salnave added 16 points.
With the tears wiped away, it was time to celebrate their unlikely city championship, according to the graduating Williams.
“We’re going to stay up all night,” he said. “We’re probably going to stay up, play [video games] and go to Hooters.”
Cardozo moves on to the semifinals of the New York State Federation Tournament of Champions in Albany, where they will face fellow Queens team Christ the King March 21.