Friday, March 2, 2012

Sacred Heart Ends Season As Expected, Just Short Against the NEC Elite

For the Sacred Heart Pioneers, Thursday night was a microcosm of the season.  This year, Sacred Heart (14-18, 8-11 NEC) always found a way to fall just short, when facing the elite teams of the Northeast Conference.  On Thursday, the elite team was the Blackbirds of Long Island (23-8, 17-2 NEC), who came into the game with a 24 consecutive home wins, a 4 game win streak over the Pioneers, and a 32-4 NEC record the past two seasons.  Sounds like a daunting, if not near impossible task for Dave Bike’s Pioneers to overcome, right?

It was. In a game such as this, Sacred Heart needed to play near perfect basketball by limiting their turnovers, scoring through a balanced attack, and defending on the perimeter.  The Pioneers did none of the above.

Despite trailing for most of the game and by 15 late in the first half, Sacred Heart to their credit cut LIU’s deficit to one point, on a Nick Greenbacker tip-in with 14 minutes remaining in the second half.  Up until that point however, the Pioneers were dodging bullet after bullet, in the form of LIU missing wide open looks from three-point land.

But after a while, those shots started falling for LIU, as the sharp shooting Michael Culpo and Jason Brickman each drained 3 long-range jumpers for the game.  And once those shots went in and the Boyd/Olasewere duo continued to dominate the paint, a vicious domino effect was in place that the less talented Pioneers couldn’t overcome.

All in all, it wasn’t a terrible Pioneer performance.  They out-rebounded LIU, 34-24.  LIU only made 2 more free throws than Sacred Heart, even though LIU is one of the nation leaders in free throw attempts per game.  Sacred Heart shot a respectable 48% from the floor and 38% from three.

But like I said before, Sacred Heart had to play a flawless game to advance into the semifinals of the NEC tourney.  And they didn’t.  The Pioneers had a rather high turnover percentage of 24.2%.  Their poor perimeter defense, when employing a 1-3-1 and 2-3 zone defense, allowed the Blackbirds to make 11 three-pointers.  In actuality, LIU missed a healthy amount of open threes, so the game could have been a lot worse.  And Justin Swidowski was unable to play a majority of the game, because he found himself in deep foul trouble early in the second half.  Sacred Heart simply doesn’t have the talent to overcome those mistakes.

So, what’s ahead for the Pioneers?  Well they only lose Stan Dulaire to graduation, and he was an inconsistent performer to say the least (sorry Steve Zazuri, but you don’t count as a contributor).  Dulaire will be replaced with two fresh bodies, one being 6-foot-7 recruit Tevin Falzon, who supposedly possesses a solid inside-out game for a big man.  Also, 6-foot-8 Egyptian transfer Mostafa Abdel Latif and his awesome afro will join the team, although it remains to be seen how much he can contribute to the Pioneers on the low block.  If either guy can play reasonably well, Sacred Heart would have a very respectable set of power forwards to pair with Justin Swidowski.

In spite of the Pioneer’s expected improvement though, the NEC will only get better for next season, as most of the upper echelon teams will either stay the same or improve.  LIU graduates Michael Culpo, but their core of Boyd, Olasewere, and Brickman remains in tact.  Wagner loses All-NEC 2nd Teamer Tyler Murray and Chris Martin, but Dan Hurley landed prized recruit Dwaun Anderson, who was Mr. Basketball in the state of Michigan once upon a time.  Robert Morris and St. Francis will have most of their core in place, and Quinnipiac has a bright future ahead with Ike Azotam, Ousmane Drame, Garvey Young, and Zaid Hearst.

In other words, the Pioneers better mature real fast (I’m looking at you Chris Evans, Evan Kelley, and Justin Swidowski) or a #8 seed and a first round exit may happen again next season.  And us fans know how miserable a season like that can be, especially when the most prolific scorer in Sacred Heart history, Shane Gibson, only has one more crack at this thing before he graduates.

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