In college basketball, the difference between winning and losing can be painstakingly thin sometimes. Many times, when the teams are evenly matched, all it takes is the bounce of a ball, the discretion of a referee, or the clutchness of a player to influence the outcome of a game.
For the 2011-2012 Sacred Heart Pioneers, the outcome of their close encounters has resulted in defeat of the heartbreaking kind, more often than not. One game was lost in overtime because of nerves, when the starting center missed two free throws with Sacred Heart down one with 13 seconds left. In another game, a lead was blown late due to poor coaching and lousy execution in the half-court set. For a third game, Sacred Heart allowed 15 points in Monmouth's final seven possessions to blow a late eight point lead. This season had so far been cruel to Sacred Heart, a team that realistically wasn't far from the upper quadrant of the Northeast Conference.
On Saturday, February 18th, I was partaking in an unusual circumstance. I would be attending a Northeast Conference (NEC) doubleheader where I didn't need the help of public transportation to get from one game to the next. At 4:30 in the afternoon, game one of the doubleheader would take place in downtown Brooklyn, where the Long Island Blackbirds were hosting the Quinnipiac Bobcats. Two and a half hours later, some 10 blocks west, the upstart St. Francis (NY) Terriers would battle the visiting Pioneers.
Obviously, the center of my attention was on game number two, but before that I was treated to a clinic in offensive efficiency, led of course by Long Island as they defeated Quinnipiac, 99-84. Once again, the Blackbirds' front-court duo of Julian Boyd and Jamal Olasewere proved to be unguardable for NEC competition, even though Quinnipiac had entered the game playing exceptional defense.
After a nice walk across Brooklyn with Nelson, a fellow NEC die-hard fan (trust me, there aren't many of us), we found ourselves in the Pope Education Center, home of the St. Francis Terriers. The Pope Center reminded me of where my high school team played, because it had the exact feel of a small, cozy, 1,200 seat high school gym.
The first half of the game morphed into a game of spurts for each team. After building a 7-2 cushion early on, Sacred Heart quickly fell behind 20-14, thanks to a hot start from the Terriers' senior leader, Stefan Perunicic, who sank 3 long-range jumpers in the span of two minutes. At that point, doubt was already creeping into my head, since Sacred Heart's lone skilled big man Justin Swidowski would be confined to the bench for the remainder of the half with two fouls.
But just when things appeared dire, the Pioneers got a new life. The zone defense Sacred Heart head coach Dave Bike instructed his team to play began giving the Terriers fits. Sacred Heart's Chris Evans, in his first game back from a knee injury, led a spirited 16-2 Pioneer run to close the first half, with the climax coming from a thunderous fast break dunk by the 6-foot-2 guard. The Pioneers entered the half with an eight-point advantage, but I was taking nothing for granted. After all, these were the snake-bitten Pioneers I was talking about.
Predictably, Glenn Braica's Terriers came out energized in the second half. The Pioneers' eight point lead completely disappeared 4 minutes into the half on a Jalen Cannon layup. It certainly looked like a battle the rest of the way.
It was. No team had a lead bigger than 5 points for the remainder of the game and there we were, with one minute left on the clock and the score tied, 54-54.
After each team exchanged two points to keep the game tied at 56, St. Francis had the ball with the opportunity for the last shot. Glenn Braica, who would later win NEC Coach of the Year, showed everyone that night why he deserved such a honor.
At the instruction of Braica, Brent Jones milked the clock down to 8 seconds and then began his drive to the hole. Penetrating left of the basket, Jones hoisted up a contested 6 footer that caromed off the front of the rim. Since Jones had released the shot with 3-4 seconds left on the clock, that gave Travis Nichols plenty of time to box out his defender, grab the rebound, and put in the game-winning put-back with 1.6 seconds remaining.
Suffice it to say, it was another heartbreaking loss for my Pioneers, their seventh such close loss of the conference season. And to make matters worse, four days later Robert Morris sank a three-pointer at the buzzer to defeat Sacred Heart, 55-54. I guess this wasn't Sacred Heart's year.
Isn't college basketball so much fun?
at SAINT FRANCIS (NY) 58, SACRED HEART 56 02/18/2012
SACRED HEART 13-16 (7-9) -- S. Gibson 7-17 4-4 21; E. Kelley 0-2 0-0 0; L. Montes 6-8 1-1 14; C. Evans 4-8 3-5 11; P. Gaetano 3-4 2-2 10; N. Greenbacker 0-4 0-0 0; S. Dulaire 0-0 0-0 0; J. Swidowski 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 20-45 10-12 56. SAINT FRANCIS (NY) 15-12 (12-4) -- S. Perunicic 4-9 0-0 11; A. Johnson 5-9 6-6 16; B. Mockford 1-7 0-1 3; J. Cannon 3-4 0-1 6; B. Jones 5-13 0-0 10; J. Newton 1-3 0-2 2; T. Nichols 3-6 0-0 8; P. Santavenere 0-2 0-0 0; K. Douglas 0-1 0-0 0; L. Ulmer 1-1 0-0 2; M. Milk 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-55 6-10 58.
Three-point goals: SH 6-15 (S. Gibson 3-8; N. Greenbacker 0-2; J. Swidowski 0-1; L. Montes 1-2; P. Gaetano 2-2), SFNY 6-24 (J. Newton 0-2; S. Perunicic 3-7; B. Mockford 1-7; T. Nichols 2-3; B. Jones 0-2; P. Santavenere 0-2; K. Douglas 0-1); Rebounds: SH 25 (S. Gibson 12), SFNY 31 (J. Cannon 10); Assists: SH 10 (S. Gibson 4), SFNY 13 (B. Jones 6); Total Fouls -- SH 15, SFNY 17; Fouled Out: SH-None; SFNY-None.