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TOMS RIVER– Andre Curbelo came to the mainland United States from Puerto Rico three years ago precisely to put his basketball skills to work on stages like the one he and his Long Island Lutheran boys basketball team played on Saturday night in Toms River.
Curbelo was already excited to play at RWJ Barnabas Health Arena in front of a national audience on ESPN3 against the country’s most followed high school team. Then he got the arena and found out someone else had made the trip from Puerto Rico.
After learning his mother and grandmother made a rare trip to the metropolitan area to watch him play, Curbelo and his Crusaders team gave them and the rest of the 3,000-plus in attendance at the Metro Classic finale a show. Long Island Lutheran went toe-to-toe with Sierra Canyon of California and its massive following and won a battle of nationally-ranked programs, 84-74.
“It was a great night,” Curbelo said. “You can’t ask for more than this. This is awesome. I’m really blessed.
“This is why I play basketball. It’s the game I love, the game I was born for. We came out really confident, we knew we could win and we did what we had to do.”
A large portion of the capacity crowd in the RWJ Barnabas Health Arena was packed shoulder-to-shoulder to see Curbelo’s opponent, which features two of the top players in the Class of 2020 in 6-foot-8 wings B.J. Boston and Zaire Williams. Sierra Canyon is also home to freshman Bronny James, the eldest son of Lebron James and the primary source for the hoopla surrounding the Blazers in 2019-20.
After scoring six points in Friday night’s win over Gill St. Bernard, James played 14 minutes off the bench on Saturday and finished with two points on 1-for-3 shooting.
While the crowd did not get a large dose of Bronny, the large contingent of Long Island Lutheran fans got exactly what they came to see and what they have come to expect from Curbelo and 6-foot-7 classmate Zed Key. Key, an Ohio State commit, dominated the interior while Curbelo wore out Sierra Canyon on the perimeter, each finishing with a game-high 25 points to lead the Crusaders charge.
“When there were about 30 seconds left and Andre was at the free-throw line, that’s when I could really hear everyone cheering and really feel it,” Key said. “It was a pretty amazing feeling. This is the biggest crowd I have played in front of. It was awesome.”
Rafael Pinzon also scored 17 points and all three of Pinzon (11), Curbelo (15) and Key (14) scored double-figure points in the second half.
Sierra Canyon stormed out to a 21-11 lead but LuHi responded with a run that overtook the Blazers and sent the Crusaders to the halftime locker room with a 38-35 lead.
“Games like this, we knew they would make a run but we just said to stay positive,” Curbelo said. “We stayed positive and executed. Even if something went wrong, we stayed with our gameplan and that’s what makes us really good. We call it ‘Playing LuHi Basketball’ and when we do that, it’s really hard to beat us.”
LuHi led throughout the second half but had to withstand a scoring surge by Boston, a Kentucky commit who scored 18 of his team-high 20 points in the second half. Williams, who is undecided regarding college with offers from a number of high-profile programs, added 19 in the loss.
Sierra Canyon’s stop in New Jersey was not unlike many of its other stops around the country this season. Fans of all ages, but particularly James’s contemporaries, flocked to the arena, camera phones armed and ready for action as soon as James and Sierra Canyon entered the arena or emerged from the locker room.
Even though he has yet to crack the starting lineup or seriously begin to narrow his college choices, James is receiving the sort of attention that even his superstar father did not see until his senior year, when ESPN began regularly airing St. Vincent St. Mary’s games.
Earlier this season, Sierra Canyon – the No. 16 team in the country, according to Max Preps – played at the Target Center in Minneapolis and drew more than 17,000 people – more than the average attendance at Minnesota Timberwolves games.
While LuHi might not be the draw that Sierra Canyon is, the No. 18-ranked Crusaders entered the game on the same tier nationally and showed why in finishing off the win.
For two women in attendance, they are enough of a draw to make the trip from Puerto Rico to New York – which Curbelo’s uncle, Daniel Montos, orchestrated back in October. With his mother and grandmother back in Puerto Rico, Curbelo lives with a host family during the school year.
“We were able to keep it a secret for the last few months,” Montos said. “I told him I was going to be here to support him but we were able to surprise him before the game when everybody else showed up. This was a special event, so if we could get everyone together here to see him play, we wanted to try to do that.”
“I had no idea until I go (to the arena) before the game,” Curbelo said. “I was really surprised and really happy to see everybody.”
With a basketball resume that includes playing for the Puerto Rican National Team, Curbelo was already wired to put on a show on a night like Saturday and a setting like the Metro Classic with so many eyes on the stage. With some unexpected eyes in the crowd, belonging to his most loving fans, it should come as no surprise Curbelo stole the show Saturday night.