St. Francis (NY) blending into NEC challenger

St. Francis (NY) solidified its position in second place in the NEC with a 73-67 victory over Central Connecticut State on Thursday in Brooklyn Heights as the team continues to get contributions from every place on the court.

The team effort helped the Terriers move to 9-2 in NEC play. Akeem Johnson and Travis Nichols led the way with 16 points, Ben Mockford scored 14 and Bent Jones added 12 points and six assists.

That scoring effort was enough thanks to a solid defensive effort. The Blue Devils shot just 28-68 (41.2%) from the field and 3-14 (21.4%) from three-point range. While CCSU was able to get onto the offensive glass and grab 18 rebounds, which led to 20 second-chance points, it was tough for the Blue Devils to find another way to score.

Even though CCSU did some work on the glass, St. Francis managed to hold last season’s NEC Player of the Year, Ken Horton, in check. He scored 13 points and grabbed nine boards. What was interesting about SFC’s defensive game plan is that often freshman Jalen Cannon found himself matched up against Horton in the paint.

“I thought it was great,” said head coach Glenn Braica about Cannon’s play. “I didn’t know if he could guard him. For a freshman I thought he did great. The kid’s a great player.”

Cannon didn’t score much, while concentrating on his defensive responsibilities, but he did grab 10 rebounds. Instead it was Johnson and a flurry of layups that helped St. Francis score 22 points in the paint during the first half and grab a 43-32 lead at the break.

“We just feel like we have an advantage in the paint,” Johnson said. “We have people who can score in the paint and we also crash the offensive boards so it’s a big part of our offense to go in the paint early now. Early in the season we shunned the paint and we went to the three-point line. Now it’s vice versa, so we go into the paint and then the three-point line is a big part of it.”

That change in mentality has been a big reason why St. Francis has been able to play so well in the NEC. A young team has obviously learned a lot this season. Jones now looks like a confident point guard, pushing pace and finding teammates on the break. He had just one turnover on Thursday night. The Terriers as a team had just eight miscues and 17 assists. They seem to be gelling as a unit.

“It says a lot about our team blending wise,” said Johnson about the team’s progression. “We’re blending together and we understand who does what and how to get the ball to certain people where they want the ball. It’s a big part of it.”

Their coach has found this young team easy to mold.

“They’re good guys. They work, they listen, they focus for the most part,” Braica said. “No kids are perfect, but I look forward to seeing them every day, which is good.”

They’ve become a big part of the NEC race because of it. And something special is coming together in Brooklyn Heights.

Other NEC action:

LIU Brooklyn 75, Bryant 70 — In a much closer than expected game the Blackbirds managed to hang on against the Bulldogs and get the home victory in order to remain in sole possession of first place. LIU was led by Jason Brickman, who scored 15 points and shot 4-5 from three, as all five starters scored in double-figures. The fact that Bryant kept it so close, and Alex Francis was able to go off for 20 points has to be a concern for Jim Ferry with Central Connecticut coming in on Saturday afternoon.

Wagner 80, Robert Morris 69 — The Seahawks jumped out to a convincing 14-point halftime lead and kept RMU at bay for the rest of the game in order to lock NYC schools firmly into the top three spots in the NEC. Latif Rivers scored 28 points for Wagner on just nine shots from the field, plus 15-17 free throw shooting. Tyler Murray scored 10 points and was the only other Seahawk in double-figures. Wagner forced 17 turnovers by the Colonials.

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