It’s taken a lot of time to process what happened last night on Remsen Street.
From an entertainment and production standpoint the NEC received everything it could’ve asked for from its conference tournament. The final between Robert Morris and St. Francis Brooklyn was one for the ages with all the twists and turns necessary for a championship. Ray Curren wrote an excellent piece shortly after the buzzer (and Vincent Simone took some great photos), but now that I’ve had some time to think about it, here are three thoughts from Brooklyn.
1) This was heartbreaking for St. Francis Brooklyn, but it’s certainly not the end. For the entire season SFC played like the best team in the NEC. It’s how the Terriers earned home court advantage throughout the tournament and why just more than 1,000 people packed into the Pope Center wishing for a championship. Up six at halftime the Terriers had a chance to dream. To wonder if they would finally make the #forgottenfive the #forgottenfour. Unfortunately, just like William & Mary the night before, the ending was all too cruel.
But as Glenn Braica said after the game, Robert Morris wasn’t a great matchup for St. Francis. The Colonials had the ability to neutralize many of the Terriers’ best tricks, including their three-guard sets thanks to the presence of Rodney Pryor and Lucky Jones. The two versatile wings can guard both up (a power forward inside) or down (a shooting guard on the wing). Pryor in particular is a three-guard lineup killer. His three-point stroke once again proved to be a major difference, as he went 4-8 from deep and scored a team-high 17 points. It was Pryor whose threes keyed the run that ultimately gave RMU the victory.
Still, St. Francis isn’t done. The Terriers will get a shot against someone in the NIT. Most likely it’ll be a No. 1 seed and a hostile gym. But after months of playing NEC teams giving who gave SFC their best fight it might just be exactly what this team needs to have one final moment in what has been one, if not the greatest, seasons in school history.
“People respect the program,” Braica said afterward. “I’d be shocked if anyone doesn’t. People respect our program and these guys should be proud of that.”
Andy Toole, always a gracious victor echoed the same sentiments. “I can’t tell you how much we respect Glenn and his staff and his team and their players and what they do. We know that every time we’ve played them since he’s been there they’ve been wars.”
Those battles are likely to continue too. Even though SFC will graduate some key pieces in Jalen Cannon, Brent Jones, Lowell Ulmer and Kevin Douglas, the cupboard isn’t bare. Glenn Sanabria, Tyreek Jewell, Chris Hooper and Amdy Fall are all key pieces of a St. Francis program that has flourished under Braica’s toutelage and should be right back in the mix next season in the NEC. This might be just the start of an impressive run for SFC.
2) Brent Jones blamed himself, but he shouldn’t have. In the press conference after the game, Brent Jones — who was in foul trouble for most of the night and finished with just seven points, five assists and four turnovers before fouling out last — took a large share of the blame for the loss. What he said is understandable. Jones is one of the most honest and animated quotes I’ve ever spoken with. He’s grown from a part-time player to an all-conference first team player during his four years in Brooklyn Heights and he’s never been one to shy away from the spotlight. He was the animus of the Terriers’ attack all season. Andy Toole knew it too. After Jones scored 23 points, including 20 in the second half, at Robert Morris on Jan. 16, it wasn’t going to happen ever again. Jones scored only 11 points in the two-point loss to RMU in the rematch a little more than a week later and during the championship it seemed as if the Colonials’ zone had only two jobs: Stop Brent Jones. Stop Jalen Cannon.
“I was thinking too much,” Jones said about facing RMU’s defense. “How can I get Jalen the ball? How can I get Chris [Hooper] the ball? How can I set up Tyreek [Jewell]?”
That was exactly the issue. Like all of Glenn Braica’s guards, Jones is at his best he’s instantly reading and reacting. Playing on instinct. There’s one dribble, one decision, and it happens. That’s really hard to do when everywhere you turn there’s a new player jumping out on you defensively. The RMU defenders consistently came way above the three-point line to stop the ball screens that are the key to SFC’s zone offense. They dared Jones to try and find a corner and then those same defenders dared Jewell, Kevin Douglas, or whoever else was on the wing to beat them. In the end they couldn’t. And while Jones made some absolutely sublime players plays, including one dastardly cut right into the teeth of a defense, he never seemed to find a rhythm. RMU concentrated on taking away SFC’s soul and succeeded in doing exactly that, especially in the second half.
3) Kavon Stewart deserved to be on the NEC all-conference team. Coming into the season Kavon Stewart was the biggest question mark in the Robert Morris rotation. During NEC play the sophomore point guard was shaky in a lot of RMU’s losses, but he put together three of his best games of the season in the NEC tournament. Stewart had offensive ratings of 114, 152 and 99 in the three tournament games and scored 10, 19 and 11 points respectively. His ability to hit late-game free throws helped RMU clinch the title too. Stewart deserved a spot on the NEC all-tournament team – though I don’t know who you’d kick off. If he’s found another level, then Robert Morris becomes a much more difficult team to stop. A feisty, tenacious defender with good passing skills, Stewart should be a fixture in the lineup in Moon Township the next two seasons.
And now both of these teams — and Saint Francis U. — will continue playing in the postseason. Robert Morris looks destined for the NCAA tournament play-in game (“first round”) in Dayton, while St. Francis Brooklyn will probably play at one of the teams that is among the first four left out of the NCAA tournament in the NIT. The Red Flash get to host a game in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. We’ll follow all of it here.