The Crusaders coaches wanted a technical foul and St. Raymond coach Oliver Antigua made the signal for Okoro to use his head. But the Iowa State-bound swingman was fully in control.
“That’s just an example of me showing passion for getting a stop defensively,” Okoro said. “I feed off the crowd. That’s what it comes down to. Sometimes I want to get a stop more than I want to get a bucket.”
Antigua put the 6-foot-5 Okoro on James, a speedy guard with several mid-major Division I offers, in the fourth quarter and the junior standout managed just two field goals. St. Ray’s would hold on for a 62-56 win over Stepinac in CHSAA Class AA boys basketball Friday night in The Bronx.
“For the most part, [Okoro] made him work,” Antigua said. “He got some shots, because he’s good, but he made him work. I thought that was the key.”
At halftime, James had 10 points and at times looked like the best player on the floor. Antigua noted that he was taking advantage of his team’s smaller guards and rising over them for jumpers. So he put the athletic, long Okoro on him.
“He was doing a real good job against us,” Okoro said. “Coach put me on that mission. It wasn’t just a offensive game for me, I felt like I had to guard the best man and lock him up. “
Okoro was strong on the other end of the floor, too. He had 17 points, Larry Graves had 14 points and Temple-bound wing Daniel Dingle added 12 for St. Ray’s (3-0, 3-0 ‘AA’).
Ravens point guard Shane Rector turned his ankle in the first quarter and he didn’t return. It was the same ankle that kept him out in the preseason and Antigua, who said he wasn’t overly worried, wanted to remain cautious.
“It wasn’t discouraging,” Graves said. “It just gave us more fire. Shane was out, so we had to push harder. We just had to step up more.”
St. Ray’s led by as much as 51-40 on a basket by Akil Andrews, who came in for Rector, with 3:55 left in the game. Just moments earlier, Okoro had rejected James, whipping the crown into a frenzy. The Ravens were in total control.
But Stepinac (0-1, 0-1), playing in its first game of the season and at the ‘AA’ level in the CHSAA’s realigned league structure, wasn’t done. The Crusaders clawed to within 55-50 on baskets by Tyler Iacuone and Devino McRae with 2:02 remaining. Graves responded with a putback leaner, though, and St. Ray’s made its free throws down the stretch.
James finished with 16 points and Iacuone, who was in foul trouble throughout, added 10 points for the Crusaders.
“We’re just getting used to this pace,” Stepinac coach Tim Philp said. “We want to win, but we have to get used to the tempo and the talent and the athleticism.”
The typically mild-mannered Okoro, wearing Clark Kent-like black-rimmed glasses after the game, made that point abundantly clear with his block and primal scream.
“We just wanted to show them,” he said with a smile, “Welcome to the ‘AA.’”