boys basketball

Catholic Memorial takes court without student fans after anti-semitic chant, but plenty of support in stands

An average cross section of Catholic Memorial fans during the team's season ending loss (Photo: Cameron Smith/USA TODAY HIgh School Sports)

An average cross section of Catholic Memorial fans during the team’s season ending loss (Photo: Cameron Smith, USA TODAY High School Sports)

BOSTON — In the end, it was just another basketball game. It just had a stunning lack of teenaged voices on one side of the arena.

Hours after Catholic Memorial officials banned its students from attending the school’s Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association Division I state semifinal against Cambridge Rindge & Latin, the Knights took the court to represent a school under fire for an anti-semitic chant aimed at the opposing fan base from Newton North High School during a game Friday night.

A group of Catholic Memorial students chanted “You killed Jesus!” at supporters and players for Newton North, which has a large Jewish population. The Catholic Memorial fans said they were taunted with homophobic chants because the school is all boys.

On Monday, the Catholic Memorial (CM) fans were loud, they wore red … they just skewed a bit older.

With the exception of very young CM fans, many likely brothers or relatives of players or former players, the youngest cross-sections of the crowd on the left bank of the TD Garden stands seemed to be 20. The result was a more generalized buzz when defending state champ CM went on a run as opposed to the direct, strident and cheers for Cambridge when the Falcons came through with a big play.

“I think it was an advantage,” Cambridge leading scorer Kareem Octavien told USA TODAY following the emotional 77-73 victory. “We feed off (our crowd) and they go everywhere with us, so us having that was a big help.”

In a game of runs back and forth, it’s hard to disagree with Octavien’s assessment.

Without a connection to either team, one group of fans from nearby Braintree took to supporting Catholic Memorial in part because of the perceived disadvantage the team faced without its biggest fans, trying to level the playing field.

“It’s a disgrace,” one Braintree fan said. “It’s not fair. One team has all their fans and the other doesn’t have any. It’s a huge advantage.”

“We don’t support (Catholic Memorial’s) decision at all,” added another.

Former Catholic Memorial basketball players cheer from the sidelines during the team's season-ending loss (Photo: Cameron Smith/USA TODAY High School Sports

Former Catholic Memorial basketball players cheer from the sidelines during the team’s season-ending loss (Photo: Cameron Smith/USA TODAY High School Sports

Make no mistake: There was plenty of support for both teams. There just wasn’t any chanting from one sideline, a particularly advisable decision by the Catholic Memorial faithful against a school known for producing both Patrick Ewing and the Boston-to-Hollywood duo Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. It’s hard to get more equally diverse than that, and the Falcons fan base reflects it perfectly.

Add to that the genuine seriousness with which Catholic Memorial approached the incident against Newton (three students were allegedly suspended just for laughing during the school assembly to discuss Saturday’s anti-semitic chant) and it’s no wonder that Catholic Memorial students chose to observe the school’s student ban from the game.

Catholic Memorial officials had considered not allowing the team to play in the game, but allowed the game to go on after consulting with Newton North “out of respect for the players and coaches who would like to finish what they have worked so hard for,” according to a statement.

Catholic Memorial also announced plans to both alter its curriculum and hold a series of educational student assemblies to educate students in the aftermath of the incident.

While the impact of not having the students in the stands wasn’t too glaring on the eyes — the most notable superficial adjustment for both teams may have been an increase in media members flanking the court — it appeared to make a difference in the second half for the Knights as energy waned.

Alumni from area colleges, with a notable group of former CM basketball players and another entire row traveling from Brown, all piped up as loudly as possible, often with humorous results.

As boisterous as that was, it can’t replicate a genuine student section, and the Catholic Memorial players noticed it, as loud as their fans in the stand worked to be. When Cambridge’s Daniel Rhymer took the air out of the CM stands with a poster tip-in that drew a foul with just more than five minutes remaining there seemed no way back for team or fans from Roxbury.

That was turned on its head when a pair of three-pointers in the final two minutes, by Brandon Twitty and Justin Leip, knotted the game at 73. When Leip took a charge on a made basket moments later the Knights had a chance to win. Leip took the shot, it was just short and Cambridge scored in transition, came through with a stop and a final bucket to cap a dramatic win — and a suddenly tumultuous Catholic Memorial season — with less than 10 seconds left.

“The distractions didn’t bother our team at all,” Catholic Memorial coach Denis Tobin told USA TODAY. “We practiced yesterday and played today. It wasn’t a distraction at all. We lost because Cambridge beat us, plain and simple.”

When it was all over, the Cambridge team ran over to celebrate wildly in front of its home fans while Catholic Memorial retreated to its locker room, unable to earn its students one final reprieve and a chance at redemption with good behavior in a potential state final.

Catholic Memorial and Cambridge Rindge & Latin line up before tip-off in their Eastern Mass. Div. I final (Photo: Cameron Smith/USA TODAY High School Sports)

Catholic Memorial and Cambridge Rindge & Latin line up before tip-off in their Eastern Mass. Div. I final (Photo: Cameron Smith/USA TODAY High School Sports)

For the players, the loss was more about the end of an era at Catholic Memorial than it was about missing out on one final group celebration with their fans.

“We want them there, but at the end of the day it’s no excuse,” Catholic Memorial’s Matthew Hanna said of his team’s season-ending loss sans student fans.

“It was us against Cambridge on the floor,” Twitty said. “It didn’t affect us at all.”