It’s been a while since I provided you the people a blog post on the Pioneers, so now is just as good a time as any. I’m finally recovered from a festive holiday party over the weekend that included great friends, turducken (it was delicious, thanks for asking), and unfortunately, cocktails with a high concentration of sweet tea vodka (my stomach is still churning). But now I’m cleansed and refreshed, so it’s time for a Sacred Heart update!
12 games are now complete. 6 wins, 6 losses. 1-1 in the Northeast conference. Borrowing the poignant words of former NFL head coach Dennis Green, the Sacred Heart Pioneers are who I thought they were! They are an improving roster of talent that is currently limited due to their inexperience and inconsistency.
After an encouraging 5-3 start to the season, Sacred Heart (6-6, 1-1 NEC) dropped 3 straight games - 2 of which lost at the final buzzer - before defeating Lafayette 84-79 last Sunday. Most glaring, Sacred Heart is now 1-3 in games where either team is within 4 points or less in the final 2 minutes. Inexperience is raring its ugly head, late in these pivotal games.
Case in point….I witnessed the gut-wrenching loss to the Central Connecticut Blue Devils two Saturdays ago in dangerous New Britain, CT, thanks to me brokering a deal where I agreed to go Christmas shopping with my wife immediately after the game (I know, I know, but I REALLY wanted to see this game). We entered the crowded gymnasium (no seriously it was crowded and kind of hostile too, and you thought no one cared about NEC basketball) with about 15 minutes left in the 2nd half, and Central firmly in control with a 12 point lead. But then the Shane Gibson show began. Before we could get comfortable in our seats, Gibson and company had gone on a scintillating 30-10 run to take 8 point advantage with 6 minutes remaining in the game. Even my wife began openly cheering for SHU, especially when I told her that Justin Swidowski was probably Polish.
Then SHU’s inexperience began to set in. Central’s elite senior duo of Robby Ptacek and Ken Horton began hitting shots. Central’s defense picked up its intensity. Swidowski, after effortlessly scoring 19 points in the first 34 minutes of the game, stopped getting open in the low block. The offense, sans Gibson, became too tentative and as a result, Gibson began talking ill-advised shots. The crowd got louder and louder. Positioned in my seat behind the SHU bench, I could now see the spit flying out of Dave Bike and Anthony Latina’s mouth, as they angrily pleaded with their players to finish off the Blue Devils (Johnny Kidd, to no ones surprise, said very little). Next thing I knew, Central had tied the game with 1:10 remaining on a three by the tattooed up white boy Ptacek.
This mini-collapse, mind you, shouldn't have been a disappointment. This was a Central team that is built to win now. When you have two seniors averaging nearly 20 points per game, a trip to the NCAA tournament IS the goal. What disappointed me, however, was the inability of SHU to close out the game, mainly due to a stagnant offense in the final minute. Inexperience…
The first possession with a minute left led to Evan Kelley - the quintessential talented, yet at times erratic player on SHU's roster - dribbling around like he was Allen Iverson (the one who played briefly in Turkey, not the 76ers MVP one) and finally hoisting up a 25 footer late in the shot clock. Suffice it to say, the shot didn't go in, and Central grabbed the rebound. I seriously doubt that was the play Bike called in the huddle. Luckily for SHU, Ptacek committed an offensive foul on the other end, giving the Pioneers a chance to win the game on their final possession. What innovative play would Bike and his staff draw up?
It ended up being the same old isolation shit. Central wisely doubled Gibson at the top of the key, who then was forced to pass it. Finally, after a game of hot potato around the perimeter, a surprised Steve Glowiak attempted a contested, last second 3-pointer in the corner that probably had a 4.5671% chance of going in. Sadly, I was not able rush the court, rip off my shirt, and flip off the creepy Blue Devil mascot in celebration, as the shot missed badly.
Despite their lack of execution late and Central’s momentum, there was SHU with another chance in overtime to take the lead down one with 13 seconds remaining. Swidowski, after being hacked on the put-back to an offensive rebound, proceeded to brick two pressurized free throws and thereby hand Central firm control of the game. In the end, a running three by Evan Kelley for the win was too strong and Central escaped with a riveting 82-80 victory.
It was a brutal loss, because they had a quality team on the ropes and twice fell short. Two evenings later, SHU validated their lack of experience by losing another nail-biter to the Yale Bulldogs. This affair proved just as sickening for Pioneer fans with Gibson missing an open three at the buzzer that would have won the game.
Truth be told, it’s better to lose these games now than late in the season. But before we get all excited about the improved talent on Bike’s roster, we must see maturation from these Pioneers. We must see certain players step up, so Bike doesn’t change his late game lineup from game to game. These are the games SHU needs to pull out to take that next step. So far the next step feels like mountain, as they struggle to gain the necessary experience to become an elite NEC squad.
With any luck, that next step will come. Maybe Kelley will swing the ball around before panicking late in the shot clock. Maybe Swidowski will calm down under the pressure and sink those free throws. And maybe, just maybe, Bike and his staff will stay away from those stupid isolation sets, and call a real play, centered around his star, Shane Gibson. It is this fan’s hope that these bitter losses will harden the resolve of the Pioneers before the 2011-2012 season is over.
And for those of you wondering, shopping at the mall after the Central loss was as horrendous as it sounded. I spent the majority of my time at Macys wondering if Swidowski was thinking about those missed free throws as much as I was. There’s a decent chance that he wasn’t...