"It doesn't have to end tonight." That's what I kept thinking to myself as I walked into the Pope Center in Brooklyn Heights to see St. Francis (NY) host Quinnipiac in the NEC Quarterfinals.
Sure, the Terriers were banged up and struggling. They were the home team at 12-6 on the conference season, but after getting swept last week on the road by Monmouth and Fairleigh Dickinson, expectations had been lowered.
It had been a magical ride. Glenn Braica's team was picked 11th in the NEC to start the season. They ended up finishing fourth through hard work, some lucky bounces and a winning combination of young talent and tough veterans.
When I first started Big Apple Buckets last April, I'd at least heard of Iona, Long Island and Wagner. I could tell you that Manhattan played in the Bronx, and where Columbia and Fordham were located. For some reason though, I couldn't tell St. Francis (NY) from St. Francis (PA), let alone tell you that the former was in Brooklyn Heights.
Over the past 12 months, though, that's changed dramatically. It turns out that the Terriers are just eight minutes away from my apartment by train. All I had to do was dip my foot into Brooklyn, and Division I basketball awaits.
Of course I had to wait a while to learn that this season. The Terriers played their first nine games of the season on the road and didn't play at home until December 19 against Albany. I didn't get to see SFC in person until four days after Christmas, when the Terriers took on Brown. At 3-8 on the season at that point, St. Francis hadn't given any indication of what was to come.
Still, the moment I did learn, I was hooked. There was this young point guard, Brent Jones, playing in his first year of college basketball. You could see the talent oozing out of him. He's got a super-quick first step and an uncanny ability to get into the lane. Of course, that night against the Bears he went 1-for-6, committed four fouls and scored three points in 13 minutes. I was still convinced he was the answer.
Turns out it just took him a little while to get going, just like the rest of his team. Soon after that game against Brown, Jones' minutes went up and he started scoring. He scored in double figures in three of St. Francis' next four NEC games, all wins. Then on January 28th, he scored 19 points in the Terriers' biggest win of the season at Robert Morris.
That's when people starting believing that this team that was picked 11th could actually be something special.
And so it continued, but after losing four of their last six down the stretch, SFC looked to be in trouble coming into the quarterfinals. Quinnipiac has talent too. Senior James Johnson would become the leading scorer in Division I history during the game. The threes though were falling early for SFC, and there seemed to be a chance.
Quinnipiac survived the early barrage and stuck around until late in the first half, when they made their move. The Bobcats extended the lead to as many as 14 points, and led by 10 at the break.
In the second half, Jones tried to will his team back into the game. With many of SFC's other scoring options either shut down or struggling, he relentlessly attacked the basket. Time after time, Jones either took a layup or got fouled. He ended up 5-for-15 from the field, but he also shot 14 free throws. His 21 points were a season high.
It wasn't quite enough. While the Terriers closed the gap to a point in the second half, they couldn't ever quite get over the hump. Quinnipiac kept attacking, especially on the offensive glass, and kept forcing St. Francis to take tough shots. There were moments in the second half where the crowd was waiting for the opportunity to explode. Waiting to believe that the charmed season would last even just one more (probably road) game.
As it inevitably does, the season ended in a loss. An 80-72 defeat to a Bobcats team that has found their way late in the season. They'll go on to take on LIU Brooklyn on Sunday in the semifinals of the NEC.
There's always next season. And St. Francis (NY), a small college with big dreams, will have Jones and many other players back to give it another shot. This time I'll know where to find them.
QUINNIPIAC 80, at SAINT FRANCIS (NY) 72 03/01/2012
QUINNIPIAC 18-12 (10-8) -- T. Greene 3-14 3-6 10; J. Johnson 4-14 12-17 22; I. Azotam 7-16 1-1 15; G. Young 4-9 1-1 9; Z. Hearst 5-11 1-4 14; J. Jackson 2-8 1-5 5; D. Johnson 3-5 1-3 8; O. Drame 1-2 0-0 2; E. Conti 2-2 0-0 5; A. Jackson 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-67 17-31 80. SAINT FRANCIS (NY) 15-15 (12-6) -- B. Mockford 5-14 2-5 17; S. Perunicic 3-10 2-2 11; B. Jones 5-15 10-14 21; J. Cannon 1-4 2-5 4; A. Johnson 1-3 1-2 3; T. Nichols 4-6 2-2 12; J. Newton 0-0 0-0 0; M. Milk 1-2 0-0 2; P. Santavenere 1-1 0-0 2; K. Douglas 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 21-57 19-30 72.
Three-point goals: QUIN 7-15 (D. Johnson 1-1; G. Young 0-2; J. Johnson 2-7; E. Conti 1-1; Z. Hearst 3-4), SFNY 11-28 (S. Perunicic 3-7; B. Mockford 5-12; T. Nichols 2-3; B. Jones 1-4; K. Douglas 0-2); Rebounds: QUIN 42 (I. Azotam 12), SFNY 29 (J. Cannon 11); Assists: QUIN 16 (J. Johnson 6), SFNY 11 (B. Jones 5); Total Fouls -- QUIN 22, SFNY 26; Fouled Out: QUIN-I. Azotam; SFNY-S. Perunicic.