Three Thoughts: St. Francis Brooklyn 71, Sacred Heart 62

Perhaps the only thing with more of a consensus in the NEC than Jalen Cannon winning Player of the Year is Glenn Braica being the guy fellow coaches would love to see win if they can’t. But even Braica – one of the best guys in college basketball – can sometimes reach, maybe not a breaking point, let’s call it a bending point.

Like when he’s asked about expectations and the program’s NCAA Tournament history for the 3,412th (estimated) time in the last week. The problem for Braica is that, especially in New York (you may have noticed the Knicks are not demanding much attention except for people who like watching dumpster fires), the more the Terriers win, the more eyes will turn toward tiny St. Francis Brooklyn and its head coach.

St. Francis Brooklyn’s 71-62 win over Sacred Heart Saturday at the Pope P.E. Center was its sixth straight, 18th in its last 22 outings, and – thanks to a Bryant loss at Mount St. Mary’s – sees the Terriers (18-9, 12-2) three games clear of the rest of the NEC with just four games remaining in the regular season. So, about getting home-court advantage for the NEC playoffs…

“That’s for other people,” Braica interrupted. “I’m just worried about the next practice. We’re not worried about that. Listen, there’s no easy games. It doesn’t matter who finishes where, whoever you play in the playoffs is going to be a war. That’s what I told these guys. No game’s going to be easy, I don’t care if you finish first, second, third, whatever, doesn’t matter. You have to train yourself that way.”

Indeed, just like most of their conference wins, this win did not come easy. Braica already has enough distractions that most of his colleagues don’t have to deal with like an international PonyCon convention inside his facility (yea, you read that right), but the Sacred Heart bus decided to put Remsen Ave. instead of Remsen St. into its GPS. Anthony Latina already ahead at the women’s game and unable to correct course, the Pioneers wandered through Brooklyn and NBA All-Star game traffic, eventually necessitating a 20-minute delay in the 4 p.m. tip.

While St. Francis Brooklyn got off to a 17-8 start, by halftime Sacred Heart led by four and it could have been much more.

But the veteran Terriers regrouped, and even though Sacred Heart held red-hot Jalen Cannon to seven points, St. Francis Brooklyn got 16 from Chris Hooper, 15 out of Brent Jones, and 12 from Tyreek Jewell as they eventually put the pesky and dangerous Pioneers (12-15, 6-8) – who have already swept Bryant and were coming off a win at Mount St. Mary’s – away.

“It’s hard to grind it out every night, but you learn about yourself when things don’t go well,” Braica said. “It didn’t go well for us in the first half. I didn’t think our minds were right. Our attitudes, our body language wasn’t right. But they’re good kids, we talked about it at halftime and they responded.”

Here are my three thoughts from just another day full of PonyCon inquisitors in Brooklyn Heights:

1. It’s not just about Jalen Cannon – Cannon was off a little, but Latina not only doubled him every time he touched the ball, but also had Tevin Falzon (or whomever) not help off him when he drifted outside, a natural progression to him hitting so many three-pointers. Cannon looked frustrated, but Latina didn’t really have a second body to send at Chris Hooper, and he was too strong down low when St. Francis was able to get him the ball. In the first half, the Terriers settled when they couldn’t get Cannon the ball, but Jones and Jewell got much more penetration in the second half, and that led to 12 assists between them (nine to Jones), many of which went to Hooper.

“We’ve got to understand that Jalen is not going to get 30 points every night, Brent is not going to get 20 every night, and you still have to find a way to grind it out,” Braica said. “That’s basketball. You’re not going to play to your optimum ability every night. Lebron doesn’t do it. You have to grind it out. You work at it and you grind it out.”

“One of the reasons I think all those other guys had such great games is because we said, ‘We’re not letting Jalen Cannon beat us,’” Sacred Heart coach Anthony Latina said. “In the meantime, Chris Hooper’s scoring and that’s the tradeoff we have to try against a player that dominant, but give them and Chris credit, they’re extremely well coached and the poise that Glenn demands of their guys is why they’re special.”

Added Hooper: “I’m a good scorer. All our bigs can score. We hjust have to run the floor, post hard and do what we do.”

2. Inexperienced team, inexperienced mistakes – In the NEC opener, Sacred Heart held an 18-point lead late in the first half at the Pitt Center before a late 8-0 run cut the deficit to 10 at the half. Eventually, the Terriers prevailed 73-71 on a Brent Jones circus shot, but one of the first things Latina mentioned was closing the game out in the first half.

Saturday, with St. Francis Brooklyn struggling, the Pioneers went on a 27-10 run to grab a 35-28 lead with 40 seconds left in the first half. But freshman Cane Broome (who had 12 points in the first half, but didn’t score in the second) had his pocket picked by Brent Jones and Gunnar Olafsson hit his only bucket of the game, a three-pointer, to make it 35-31 Sacred Heart at the half.
Again, the Pioneers battled in the second half, repeatedly cutting into the St. Francis lead, but what if they were up 10 at the half? We’ll never know, and it was yet another close loss for Sacred Heart.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I was pleased with our progress as a program,” Latina said. “We’ve more than doubled, almost tripled our win total from last year and how many close games have we lost? Now that’s part of the maturation process, that’s why St. Francis Brooklyn is where they are and we are where we are, they went through some of that to get to be where they are now.”

3. Leadership – Brent Jones did not finish with the most flashy numbers: 15 points (but only 4-12 from the field), nine assists. Those are obviously good (he had a career-high 28 points last year against Sacred Heart), but the real value of Jones is how much he controls the action. His turnovers are actually up this season, while his assists have stayed pretty similar (his points are way up), which seems like a problem until you watch how much he has the ball when he’s in the game. He’s gotten plenty of help from Tyreek Jewell, whom Braica credited with holding Evan Kelley in check for much of the game, Hooper (whom Braica also praised his improved defense), Amdy Fall, Glenn Sanabria, Kevin Douglas, and others. But the guy who is running the show is clearly the senior leader, Brent Jones, just as Latina hopes someone like Cane Broome will do down the road for him.

“We don’t put too much pressure on ourselves,” Jones said. “We just go out and play hard. One game at a time. Play hard every 40 minutes. We know we have a target on our backs so we can’t slip, we have to keep working hard, no slippage.”

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