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RJ Davis and AJ Griffin bring the rivalry to the March Madness Final Four

NEW ORLEANS — North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper has dubbed his state “the center of the college basketball universe” as his two bitter rivals clash in the Final Four.

With that in mind, the winner of this intergalactic battle could be decided by Westchester County, located more than 1,300 miles northeast of where this showdown between Duke and North Carolina – their first matchup in NCAA tournament history – will be fought.

North Carolina’s RJ Davis and Duke’s AJ Griffin, starters of their respective teams and former teammates of Archbishop Stepinac who won a state title together, will represent the New York City area on the sport’s biggest stage.

“Not many people from Stepinac make it to the Final Four and to say you played each other will always be remembered,” Griffin said Thursday.

There was a fuss in Stepinac this week about Davis and Griffin, all reminiscing about their days at school and trying to finalize plans for the party they were supposed to attend to see how they would compare. Coach Pat Massaroni heard a kid marvel that he walked the same halls as Davis and Griffin once did.

AJ Griffin
AJ Griffin
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“The most important word that comes to mind is pride,” said Archbishop Stepinac Senior Samuel Gibbs, who played with the couple for two years.

They have taken different paths to get to this point. Griffin, a 6-foot-6 projected one-and-done lottery ticket from Ossining, joined Stepinac with considerable hype and was the top prospect in his class by the end of his freshman year of high school. The 6-foot Davis from White Plains only made it onto the national stage the summer before his senior year. Massaroni recalled high-profile coaches telling him Davis wasn’t good enough. That changed that summer.

“What we knew in Stepinac and what I knew now became a national thing,” Massaroni said. “All the guys who said he wasn’t good enough wanted to recruit him now.”

Davis signed for North Carolina in October 2019. A month later, Griffin chose Duke. The two knew they would soon be rivals. In practices and pickup games, they played on different teams and went at each other. The matchups were intense.

“It pushed each other on the shoulders a bit,” Gibbs said.

The two have enjoyed strong seasons, key parts of their respective teams’ run up to this weekend. Davis went from being a supplemental part to being a substantial part of the Tar Heels in his sophomore year, averaging 13.4 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.7 assists and a 37.4 percent shot from 3-point range.

In four NCAA tournament games, he’s amassed 24 assists while committing just eight turnovers and exploded for a career-high 30 points in a second-round riot against top seed Baylor. He picked up 21 points in the Heels’ upset win at Duke to close out the regular season.

RJ Davis
RJ Davis
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“Whenever [his team is doubted] seems to be when RJ delivers the most,” Gibbs said.

Griffin wasn’t so consistent. A knee injury before the season threw him back and he didn’t make the starting lineup until mid-January. He has shown flashes of his boundless blanket, notching 27 points in a win in North Carolina and 18 in the West Regional loss to fourth-place Arkansas. His numbers — 10.5 points, 3.9 rebounds — might not be all that impressive, though he was Duke’s most consistent 3-point threat, a force that shot 45.8 percent from beyond the arc.

Together they popularized Stepinac and led the Crusaders to the 2018 City and State Championships. The next year, they fell to Christ the King in the city championship and were the top overall seed in the playoffs the following year before the COVID-19 pandemic. They will be back on the pitch together on Saturday night, meeting for the third time this year. Griffin and Duke won the first meeting. Davis and North Carolina won the second. The rubber match is by far the most important. No matter who wins, Stepinac will be represented on the final night of college basketball season.

“It shows that you can stay at home in New York and still reach the highest level,” Massaroni said. “The two, McDonald’s All-Americans. The two of them, New York State Champions. The two who play and produce in the ACC and now the two in the Final Four and hopefully a national championship for one of them.”

Gibbs laughed when asked if he supports both teams. Everyone, he said, asks him that. He hopes they both play well.

“I just want to see them having fun, enjoying the moment,” Gibbs said. “I think Stepinac is the winner of all of this because you see people from Westchester County competing at the highest possible level.”

https://nypost.com/2022/03/31/r-j-davis-and-aj-griffin-take-rivalry-to-march-madness-final-four/ RJ Davis and AJ Griffin bring the rivalry to the March Madness Final Four

JOE HERNANDEZ

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