"Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you're doing the impossible."
- St. Francis of Assisi
You get the feeling that St. Francis of Assisi would like this group of Terriers that bear his name on the front of their jerseys (Brooklyn chapter).
Once upon a time, Francis started his life above the 12th Century version of the Red Line, but he saw the error of his ways (just like some of us), and quickly gave up everything to become the savior of the broken, the beaten, and the damned. I'm not sure what Francis would have thought of My Chemical Romance, just as I'm not sure what he would make of college basketball. But he was pretty progressive under the circumstances, no?
As Division I programs go, St. Francis can most certainly plead poverty, and do it willingly. They play in a tiny gym, on a tiny campus (just five buildings basically), with a tiny undergrad enrollment (about 2,500), and have never been to the NCAA Tournament, one of five schools that have been around since the beginning of the modern era (1947-1948), and not made it to the Big Show (Northwestern, Army, William and Mary, and The Citadel are the others).
This didn't seem like the season that St. Francis would break the streak, as the Terriers were picked 11th in the preseason NEC poll by the coaches, meaning it would be quite a feat for them to even make the eight-team postseason tournament. They showed few signs of improvement the first time I saw them play, taking lots of bad and/or contested shots and playing little defense in a loss to Army.
I watched on television Sunday as they gave league-leaders Long Island all they could handle before falling.
Which brings us to Thursday night at the lush (at least by our standards) $53 million TD Bank Center when St. Francis looked to sweep Quinnipiac, a school that has talked about moving on to bigger and better things eventually (like possibly the Colonial or even the Atlantic 10/14). As the student ticket taker was telling the girl next to her, "Most of the teams we go against play in gyms, not places like this. But look how much we pay to go to school here, right?"
Yes, somewhere, St. Francis cringed at that one.
His team did not, though, even in the face of a relatively hot (four-game winning streak) Quinnipiac squad that was becoming a trendy pick to win the NEC and make their first NCAA Tournament appearance.
Of course, from a pure basketball perspective, unconventional doesn't begin to describe how the Terriers were able to prevail 64-56, even though they led from wire to wire.
Their leading scorer - English marksman Ben Mockford - was 0-for-7 from three-point range, including an airball, a ball that hit nothing but backboard from straight away, and another that hit the side of the backboard from the corner and caromed near midcourt. Their second leading scorer, Serbian Stefan Perunicic, did manage to hit one #superhoop, but finished 2-for-9 from the field and his shots often seemed closer to the roof than the basket. Arguably their best interior player, junior Akeem Johnson, played only 18 minutes and didn't grab a single rebound. Yet the Terriers were able to hold their own on the boards against one of the best rebounding teams in the country (Jalen Cannon's 19 certainly helped the cause).
Their offense often looked aimless as well - including back-to-back shot clock violations while trying to hold onto the lead down the stretch - but somehow (forcing 20 turnovers helps), every time a play needed to be made, it was. To illustrate the thriving enigma that is St. Francis: it's quite possible that they will enter weekend action without someone in the conference Top 20 in scoring, yet they are fourth in scoring as a team.
For whatever reason, I have been caught in the St. Francis spell this season as well; I guess the pilgrimage will do that to you. In the ultimate backhanded compliment you'll probably ever read, to see a team with so little do so much makes me love our game, and I believe a lot of the success the Terriers have experienced in conference play has to do with their camaraderie, but that's obviously a hypothesis that can never officially be proven.
There is a cruel part of life below the Red Line, especially as far below as the NEC. Although St. Francis has clinched a home game in the quarterfinals of the NEC Tournament, they could easily see this Quinnipiac team again in that game, and it will likely be far from easy. Should they survive that, they would likely have to win at Wagner and Long Island to grab that elusive NCAA berth.
And if they don't, other than you and I, will anyone else in the country even be aware of what a fantastic job these castoffs and hand-me-downs (and I mean that in the most complimentary fashion possible) have done this season? Probably not.
But, as St. Francis said, "True progress quietly and persistently moves along without notice."
Well, at least one person outside of Brooklyn has noticed.
SAINT FRANCIS (NY) 64, at QUINNIPIAC 56 02/16/2012
SAINT FRANCIS (NY) 14-12 (11-4) -- I. Miller 4-13 0-0 11; J. Cannon 4-9 5-10 13; B. Jones 4-8 3-4 11; S. Perunicic 2-9 2-2 7; B. Mockford 2-11 0-0 4; T. Nichols 2-8 4-5 10; A. Johnson 5-8 0-2 10; J. Newton 2-4 2-3 7; K. Douglas 0-0 0-0 0; P. Santavenere 0-3 0-0 0; M. Milk 0-0 0-0 0; L. Ulmer 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 22-61 16-26 64. QUINNIPIAC 15-11 (8-7) -- J. Johnson 3-13 5-6 11; Z. Hearst 1-3 0-0 2; I. Azotam 4-7 4-9 12; G. Young 5-11 3-4 14; D. Johnson 3-8 2-2 9; O. Drame 2-5 1-2 5; E. Conti 1-2 0-0 2; A. Jackson 0-2 1-2 1; J. Harris 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 19-51 16-25 56.
Three-point goals: SFNY 4-20 (J. Newton 1-2; S. Perunicic 1-5; B. Mockford 0-7; T. Nichols 2-4; P. Santavenere 0-2), QUIN 2-12 (D. Johnson 1-3; G. Young 1-3; J. Johnson 0-4; Z. Hearst 0-2); Rebounds: SFNY 37 (J. Cannon 19), QUIN 38 (I. Azotam 15); Assists: SFNY 10 (B. Jones 5), QUIN 7 (J. Johnson 3); Total Fouls -- SFNY 23, QUIN 25; Fouled Out: SFNY-None; QUIN-G. Young.