WEST HARTFORD, Conn. — The University of Saint Joseph (USJ) men's basketball team played like there was no tomorrow, and had they lost, there may not have been one. After a huge 16-2 run to start the second half, USJ was able to hold off a hard-charging Regis College (RC) team, 85-68, and advance to the Great Northeast Athletic Conference Tournament in their first ever season.
With the win, the Blue Jays (14-11, 5-6 GNAC) clinched the seven spot in the GNAC Tournament. Eight teams out of 12 qualify for the single-elimination tournament:
Tuesday, February 19 - Quarterfinals
Game 1: #8 Lasell at #1 Albertus Magnus - 8:00 PM
Game 2: #5 Colby-Sawyer at #4 Emmanuel - 7:30 PM
Game 3: #6 Saint Joseph's (Maine) at #3 JWU - 7:00 PM
Game 4: #7 Saint Joseph (Conn.) at #2 Suffolk - 7:00 PM
Thursday, February 21 - Semifinals (at higher seeds)
Game 5: 4/5 winner vs. 1/8 winner
Game 6: 3/6 winner vs. 2/7 winner
Saturday, February 23 - Championship
Game 7: at highest remaining seed
It was a must-win for the Pride (9-16, 4-7 GNAC) as well, who have been eliminated from playoff contention with both the loss and a win by Lasell earlier in the day.
Freshman forward Sam Majek (Brooklyn, Conn.) had by far his best game of the season, and it could not have come at a better time. He scored 20 points, grabbed four rebounds and recorded three steals. Freshman point guard Delshawn Jackson Jr. (Hartford, Conn.) came up big in the second half despite struggling from the field in the first. The smallest guy on the floor finished with another double-double (20 PTS, 10 REBS, 7 ASSTS, 4 STLS). Freshman guard Chris Childs (Bronx, N.Y.) added 19 (4-9 3 FG). Senior forward Ademola Afonja (Staten Island, N.Y.) scored a team-high 19 points (13 in the second half) for the Pride, while sophomore forward Devante Thompson (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) scored nine of his 11 in the second as well.
The Blue Jays could not have had a better start, taking a 7-0 lead in the first two minutes, as Childs connected on a three from the left wing. He followed it up with an assist to Majek on a screen and roll. Freshman forward Jake Sullivan (Branford, Conn.) then found freshman forward Noreaga Davis (Bridgeport, Conn.) ahead of the play for an and-one. 7-0 USJ with 18:00 to go.
Sophomore forward Marc Trinidad (Bronx, N.Y.), and senior forward Jordan Seldon (Dorchester, Mass.) did their part for the Pride early on, not letting the lead grow to double-digits. Their inside presence paid dividends, but for every post touch for a score, USJ would poke a ball away for a steal, or force a difficult shot to get out in transition. Saint Joe's forced seven early turnovers, and with the help of Majek in the paint (3-3 FG in the first half), the Blue Jays maintained the lead, 20-14, with 9:15 left in the first. The Blue Jays had a 17-4 edge in points off turnovers in the first half, but the Pride were plus five on the glass, as Trinidad continued to work the paint on both ends.
Jackson Jr. struggled from deep in the first half, so he attacked for two layups to gain some confidence. Fundamental basketball won the first half for USJ, as most of their offense came from passing and cutting, screen and rolls, give and go's, and making the extra pass. Freshman forward Ryan O'Neill (Litchfield, Conn.) also helped with a buzzer-beating fadeaway three from the left corner with 1.2 seconds on the clock. The friendly roll ignited the O'Connell Center crowd, who cheered on the ten-point halftime lead, 36-26. Majek scored eight in the half to lead all scorers. Jackson Jr. and Sullivan had three assists each.
The Blue Jays opened up the half on a 16-2 run to build a 24-point lead, 52-28 with 16:53 to go in the game. The Pride called multiple timeouts to try and stop the run. Jackson Jr. broke free for a steal and coast-to-coast finish. It was sandwiched between two Child's three-pointers. Majek and Sullivan did a great job of rolling hard to the hoop after setting ball screens for Childs and Jackson Jr., and the guards found them for easy points.
The lead ballooned to 30 with 12:00 left, 68-38. The game seemed out of reach, but the Pride, playing with the same fight as their nickname, refused to quit until the final buzzer. RC turned to a full-court man-to-man press and forced half a dozen turnovers in the backcourt, either on the initial inbounds pass, or when trapping the first man who tried to dribble through. Afonja and Thompson both led the charge, as the lead was slowly but surely cut in half, 73-59, with 4:15 left in the game.
The Pride gave the O'Connell center crowd all they could handle, as both teams left it all on the floor by the time the buzzer sounded. The Blue Jays were able to withstand the 19-5 run by taking care of the basketball, and breaking the press for a few more baskets, as the Pride simply ran out of time. Jackson Jr. controlled the pace down the stretch to close it out, and the Blue Jays wrapped up the final home game of their inaugural season with a W.
After the buzzer sounded, first-year head coach and Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun brought his Blue Jay squad to center court to pay tribute to the hundreds of fans who packed the O'Connell Athletic Center for every home game this season.
"When we come into this gym every day, it feels like home. I just want you to know that. I want to thank you for all your support this season." Calhoun said.
USJ will compete in the Quarterfinals of the GNAC Tournament Tuesday, February 19 on the road against Suffolk (MA). Tip-off is at 7:00 p.m. USJ lost at Suffolk, 79-77, on February 14.