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CK lets its shot at national ranking slip away late

NEWARK, N.J. — The Christ the King girls basketball team had been teetering on the brink of a national ranking for weeks. The Royals were winners of nine straight and, with a clean sweep against two powerhouses this weekend, they would have been a shoo-in.

It looked like CK would pass its first test Saturday — until the final minutes.

Christ the King led the entire game until Alyesha Lovett’s long jumper put Malcolm X. Shabazz (N.J.), ranked No. 15 in the country by USA Today, in front with two minutes left. The Bulldogs held on for a 53-51 win against the Royals in the Newark National Invitational at the Prudential Center.

“It was a total missed opportunity,” Christ the King star guard Bria Smith said.

Shabazz (16-1), the local team, turned up the intensity in the second half, where it got 12 offensive rebounds. It seemed like the Bulldogs got to every loose ball late. Smith, ranked the fifth best junior in the country by scouting services, tied the game up at 51 for Christ the King (13-4) on two free throws with 1:43 left. But an acrobatic bank shot by sophomore Aliyyah Handford (21 points) acted as a dagger and sent the home crowd into a frenzy.

“We stopped playing defense, stopped rebounding,” CK’s Penn State-bound senior Ariel Edwards said. “You can’t win the game if that happens.”

Christ the King led comfortably 41-33 when sophomore guard Lauren Nuss hit a three-pointer with 7:40 left in the game. But Shabazz was relentless and Handford had eight points in a 20-10 run. Seton Hall-bound guard Ka-Deidre Simmons stripped Smith with 29 seconds left and the Bulldogs were able to run out the clock.

“We played 30 minutes and, against a really good team, you have to play 32,” Royals Coach Bob Mackey said.

Shabazz Coach Vanessa Watson said her team didn’t know much about Christ the King outside of its long history as a top national program. So it wasn’t until after the break that the Bulldogs got into their groove.

“We’re more of a second-half team, honestly,” Watson said. “It was a matter of us seeing what was there.”

Watson moved a quicker player, Nakiyyah Teague, onto Edwards and LIU-bound guard Desiree Simmons (Ka-Deidre’s twin sister) continued to do an excellent job defensively on Smith (10 points), who had just one field goal.

“I wasn’t playing my game at all,” Smith said. “I don’t know why.”

Edwards finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds and Nia Oden had 13 points, while Ka-Deidre Simmons had 14 for Shabazz.

Nuss had 11 points and two other big threes — one to break a 30-all tie with 1:56 left in the third quarter and another to make it 44-38 with 6:01 left in the game. She did have some trouble with Shabazz’s pressure at times and probably should have called a timeout with CK down two and under a minute left, a possession that ended in Smith’s turnover. Mackey said he’d like her to become more confident in herself and Edwards agreed.

“Lauren has to have more faith in her game,” Edwards said. “She’s a great player, but she can’t second-guess herself.”

Mackey joked he might be second-guessing himself for scheduling this weekend — “I might be nuts,” he quipped. The Royals will head down to Philadelphia to play another top team, Archbishop Wood (Pa.), Sunday. But everyone — coaches and players — agreed it would be best to get right back on the court after this loss.

“I’d rather lose 10 games like this, despite what it’ll do to my stomach,” Mackey said, “than have to play a 40-point game where you’re not doing anything.”

Reach Marc Raimondi at mraimondi@nypost.com.

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