From Opening Day, heck probably months before that, Sacred Heart coach Anthony Latina has preached that defense was the way his team would improve on his first season in charge, a 5-26 campaign that saw the Pioneers win just twice in NEC play.
Latina knew the actions were going to be tougher than words. His starting guard tandem of Phil Gaetano and Cane Broome put together wouldn’t weigh enough to play on an NFL offensive line, and at many times, the rest of his lineup went 6’4”, 6”4”, 6’7”.
It looked like message received for much of the non-conference season. Sacred Heart held Hartford to 0.78 points per possession in a blowout win in its opener and followed it up with victories over Colgate, Holy Cross, and New Hampshire – all fairly impressive in retrospect (the Raiders did manage 1.03 ppp, but they have a pretty good offense).
But then the NEC started, and although improved, Sacred Heart was still 4-7 in the league with the eighth-best defense, ahead of only the two teams at the bottom of the standings, heading into Saturday’s game against Bryant. The Pioneers had been masterful in an 83-66 rout at Bryant, although it was offense that carried the squad that day to the tune of 1.38 ppp (Bryant managed 1.10 even in the loss).
On Saturday, though, Bryant – who has been a pretty poor defensive team itself, even while simultaneously contending in the NEC – torched a lackluster Pioneers squad in the first half in front of a big crowd at the Pitt Center. Dyami Starks, who was shooting just 33% from the field in his last eight games, had 21 points, the Bulldogs were scoring with little resistance at a 1.31 ppp clip, and they led 46-32 at the break.
It looked an awful lot like last year’s Pioneer team.
But, although it took a while to show in the margin on the scoreboard, the second half was a different story. Evan Kelley was near Starks wherever he went and Sacred Heart held Starks to five second-half points and 0.74 ppp.
It still took a little bit of good fortune and an overtime, but in the end, Sacred Heart captured what could be a signature victory, 84-75, virtually assuring its return to the NEC Tournament and showing it may not be an easy out when it gets there.
Here are my other thoughts from the loud Pitt Center:
1. This game was eerily similar to the Sacred Heart NEC opener – The Pioneers blew an 18-point lead against St. Francis Brooklyn back on Jan. 3 at the Pitt Center, and afterward both teams pointed to late in the first half when things began to turn. Saturday, Bryant led 46-29 when Steve Glowiak missed a three-pointer and Dan Garvin (who played high school only a few minutes from Sacred Heart) appeared to have the rebound. But it mysteriously slipped away, Jordan Allen (who would end up having a huge day and a career-high 24 points) grabbed it, scored, and was fouled. Bryant (11-12, 8-4) still led by 15 at the midway mark of the second half after Starks finally got loose for a three-pointer, but the Pioneers at least had some momentum.
In addition, whereas St. Francis Brooklyn needed a circus Brent Jones shot to win, all the effort would have gone for naught had Phil Gaetano – not exactly classified as a shooter although he has improved in that area and has 121 three-pointers in his career – drilled a 30-footer with 5.7 seconds left to tie the game. Sacred Heart scored the final 12 points of overtime and won going away.
Maybe the karma police owed them that one after some tough losses earlier in the season.
2. Bryant’s defense may keep it from winning the NEC – I picked Bryant to win the league in the preseason, and they’ve managed to go 8-4 even without Starks being at his best for much of it (he seemed to be Saturday, even though it took him 24 shots to get 26 points and he never went to the free throw line). They haven’t been great defensively under Tim O’Shea even with their success, and check in 287th nationally this season. They don’t force many turnovers, which made it remarkable that the Pioneers (11-14, 5-7) had five turnovers before the first media time out (finished with 13), and don’t get offensive rebounds, depending on Dan Garvin to do pretty much everything on the glass.
Which makes it curious that O’Shea had gone almost exclusively with Australian freshman Bosko Kostur of late. Kostur is a matchup nightmare, a fairly deadly 6’7” shooter playing at a four or five for the Bulldogs. After getting virtually no minutes at the beginning of the season, Kostur has gotten almost all of them of late, 42 Saturday, in which he scored 15 points … but grabbed only four rebounds, and was pushed around more than once in the paint.
Although O’Shea rarely uses his bench (just 20 minutes Saturday), the Bulldogs really miss Curtis Oakley. (Not because he’s injured, but just not playing due to O’Shea’s rotations.) Of course, as I said, if Gaetano doesn’t hit his shot, it’s a very different tone everywhere, isn’t it?
3. Looking ahead – You can start to piece together at least some predictions in the NEC now. Unfortunately, it looks like we virtually know the eight teams in the tournament (sorry, FDU and Central Connecticut), and so it comes down to home-court advantage. Sacred Heart has a difficult schedule the rest of the way (at Mount St. Mary’s Thursday), so it will be tough for them, but LIU Brooklyn and Wagner are just a game behind The Mount and St. Francis U. for fourth, while Bryant and Robert Morris are just a game ahead of them.
It’s getting to be about that time, isn’t it?