NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The University of Saint Joseph (USJ) men's basketball team could practically taste the trophy, but ultimately came up just short down the stretch, falling in a hard-fought Great Northeast Athletic Conference (GNAC) Championship game to Albertus Magnus College (AMC), 81-77, inside the Cosgrove Marcus Messer Athletic Center Saturday afternoon.
Hundreds sold out "The Nest" to see this Connecticut Clash for a trip to the NCAA Division III Tournament. The Blue Jays (16-12) are the only seven seed in the history of the GNAC to make it to the championship game. They were tasked with winning three games on the road, and having knocked off two-seeded Suffolk Tuesday, and six-seeded St. Joseph's (ME) on Thursday, all that was left was the seven-time GNAC Champions, the Falcons of Albertus Magnus (20-7). A true test of mental and physical toughness came down to the final minutes, exactly as it played out when these two teams met three weeks before. Once again, it was AMC who out-muscled USJ with some huge second-chance points to close out their eighth GNAC Title (seventh in the last ten years).
Junior Damian Grant (Waterbury, Conn.) was named the Great Northeast Athletic Conference (GNAC) Tournament Most Valuable Player, scoring a team-high 21 points, and hauling down eight rebounds (six offensive). Freshman point guard Delshawn Jackson Jr. (Hartford, Conn.) scored a game-high 23 points. Freshman shooting guard Chris Childs (Bronx, N.Y.) scored 22 points and dished out four assists. AMC held both Jackson Jr. and Childs (USJ's two top scorers) to 7-of-18 shooting respectively, including a combined 3-of-16 from downtown. The Blue Jays did their job defensively as well, holding the Falcons' trio of junior guard Jahmerikah Green-Younger (Norwalk, Conn.), sophomore guard Tyreek Perkins (New Haven, Conn.), and freshman guard Davon Warner (New Haven, Conn.) to a combined 12-of-34 shooting. The difference maker came in the second half, as the Blue Jays were unable to maintain their seven-point halftime lead. The Falcons also had twice as many offensive rebounds (20-10) as USJ, giving them twice as many second-chances to score. Jackson Jr., Childs, Grant, Perkins and senior guard Ryan Pittman (Stratford, Conn.) were named to the all-tournament team:
GNAC ALL-TOURNAMENT TEAM
Emmitt Riddick – Emmanuel
Jack Casale - Saint Joseph's (Maine)
Chris Childs – Saint Joseph (CT)
Delshawn Jackson Jr. – Saint Joseph (CT)
Ryan Pittman – Albertus Magnus
Tyreek Perkins – Albertus Magnus
Damian Grant – Albertus Magnus (MVP)
The Blue Jays were certainly not afraid of the moment. This was their third road playoff game in less than a week, and despite being a team of nearly all freshmen, they appeared to be sharper than the seven-time champions. After a Grant offensive rebound and put-back to tie the game at 20-all, USJ built their largest lead of the half. Back-to-back layups from freshman forward Ryan O'Neill (Litchfield, Conn.) started a quick 7-0 run. It would be O'Neill's only two baskets of the game. Jackson Jr. added a jumper and a free throw to take a 27-20 lead with 9:38 left in the half.
The Falcons picked up the tempo with a 10-2 run to regain the lead, capped off with a Grant steal and Perkins jump-shot. 30-29 Falcons, with 5:58 left. The Blue Jays pushed right back though, closing the half on a 15-7 run, to take a 44-37 lead into the locker room. Childs drained one of his two triples on the day with 52 seconds left before the break.
The Falcons used their physicality and experience to put pressure on the Blue Jays. Every offensive possession was a fight to the end, even the perimeter defenders were bodying up Blue Jay guards, making things extremely difficult. On a miss, the Falcons were out and running, attacking the rim with sheer aggression. Childs and O'Neill converted from the foul line to keep USJ in front, but the crowd was fired up, and the momentum swinging. The many Blue Jay faithful who made the trip down I-91 cheered back, hoping this young Jim Calhoun led group would find a way to seal the deal.
USJ held the lead until an electrifying three from Warner with 13:27 to go. A 14-4 run gave AMC a 61-56 lead with 11:33 to go in the game. O'Neill was committed to shooting the three if he was open. He was even fouled twice outside. He sank two-of-three from the line to tie the game back up, 64-64, with 8:56 left in the title bout.
After nearly three minutes of scoreless basketball, the Blue Jays regained the lead on a pair of DJ free throws, and a Childs jump shot. Up 68-64 with 5:26 to go, USJ had a chance to close it out, but that Falcon experience came back into play, as Grant and company grabbed four offensive rebounds (three leading to second-chance baskets), and got the stops down the stretch they needed to scrap out a victory. All hope seemed lost until Childs made his second three to cut it to two, 79-77, with 14 seconds left. After a USJ timeout, Perkins threw the ball the length of the floor to an open Green-Younger, who snuck past the Blue Jay full-court press, clinching the game with a breakaway layup. AMC outscored USJ by in 12 second-chance points, 14 in points in the paint, and by 15 off the bench.
AMC head coach Mitch Oliver, who has won seven GNAC Championships in his 12-year tenure, celebrated with his team at half court, and praised his fellow coach on the sideline for what he accomplished this season.
"He's a legend. He's one of the greatest coaches of all time, any level, obviously. Let's face it, ESPN's not here [filming an E:60 documentary] if he's not. We got more exposure because of him. We appreciate that. He brought the league to another level.
Those [St. Joe's] kids over there just got an unbelievable experience, and for them to get to the championship game is an unbelievable feat in their first year of existence, and with all freshman."
First-year head coach Jim Calhoun, who rallied his troops from the seven-seed to the GNAC title in the school's inaugural men's basketball season, is as he always is, never satisfied. The lifetime basketball coach is already gearing towards the future of the program.
"The only thing I can think of is we're going to meet on Monday to make sure St. Joe's is in the right direction."