Sunday, January 6, 2013

Sacred Heart Finishes Off St. Francis to Win First Two NEC Games

I don't ever remember saying this about any of my favorite sports teams, but four wins and nine losses has never looked so damn good. Especially when you throw in that perfect 2-0 NEC record!

It seems ridiculous to celebrate after a team has won merely 31% of their games, but after one of the worst non-conference seasons I have ever witnessed as a Sacred Heart alum, I needed this. Any of the 500 fans who showed up at the Pitt Center yesterday needed this. The Pioneers have righted the ship by sweeping their two game home-stand against the Brooklyn schools to open the conference season. So everything is OK now, right?

Well, not exactly.

Sure, I'm a glass half-empty guy when talking about my Pioneers, yet these are two games that SHU desperately needed to win, which they did by the slimmest of margins. The two victories gave SHU a share of first place along with Wagner and Bryant (who could have guessed that?), but I'm far from celebrating this momentous occasion.

(Seriously Ryan, stop being a freaking baby. Just be happy they have a share of the first place lead. It could be worse. You could be a fan of Robert Morris, who's coach just called his team a bunch of wimpy, noncompetitive boys after two home losses to Bryant and CCSU.)

OK. OK. I'll humor you this time. After all, I should oblige. Especially after Mount St. Mary's head coach Jamion Christian congratulated me on SHU's win after HIS OWN press conference last night (he was in a good mood after their solid win over Monmouth).

Just let it be known that the Pioneers were fortunate to be only down five at halftime of their home showdown with St. Francis Brooklyn. The Terrier big men missed a number of easy putbacks and shots inside the paint (which included a comical two minute sequence from St. Francis center Matt Milk, poor guy), and luckily SHU took advantage by closing the first stanza on an 8-0 run. It should have been a much bigger deficit.

In second half, however, the Pioneers played like the title contending team I had originally envisioned. For the first time all season, Justin Swidowski played an absolutely dominating five minutes of basketball, registering 12 points on only five shots. He did his damage from both inside and out, and was the spark that kept in the Pioneers in the game throughout the second half. After his three-point play (the good old fashion way) capped off a 12-1 run to tie the game at 47, it was an entirely whole new game.

Despite the second half surge though, SHU still couldn't get over the hump. Anytime the Pioneers had an opportunity to seize control of the game, there was St. Francis power forward - and future All-NEC first teamer - Jalen Cannon doing damage in the paint. The shorthanded Pioneers frontcourt, sans Femi Akinpetide (personal issue) and Tevin Falzon (academic issue), were no match for the bulky sophomore, as he once again impressed with an array of smooth post moves and an uncanny ability to grab rebounds on both sides of the floor. Cannon finished with 20 points and 16 rebounds.

(Quick side note: The SHU radio announcer said this about Cannon during the game, "Jalen Cannon is becoming one of the better players in the NEC." That certainly is the understatement of the year!)

Luckily for the Pioneers, a player who has already earned All-NEC first team honors in Shane Gibson played like a star yesterday. It was vintage Gibson (28 points on 17 shots), as he scored the final four points of the contest to will his team to victory. Rather than hoisting up a contested 25 footer in SHU's final possession, Gibson wisely drove past his man and was fouled by Akeem Johnson as he attempted the game winning layup. Gibson then calmly swished both free throws with five seconds left to give the Pioneers their first lead since they were up 3-0.

SHU, of course, held on and will now embark on an arduous four game road trip. The first week keeps the Pioneers in Connecticut for critical in-state battles with CCSU and Quinnipiac. The second leg finds Dave Bike and company in Western PA to face St. Francis (PA) and an angry and winless (in the NEC anyway) Robert Morris club.

Anything less than a split of those four games will be disappointing, but given the wild wild NEC (sorry I had to steal that phrase from Colonial Corner writer Andrew Chiappazzi), you never know what is going to happen. Yet with the wide openness of the conference, SHU has a chance. If Shane Gibson can consistently return into that dynamic player from a season ago, if Justin Swidowski is finally back full healthy from his shoulder surgery, and if role players like point guard Phil Gaetano continue to produce (19 assists versus five turnovers, four of six from three-point range in both conference games so far), then who the hell knows what this team can do.

I'm not celebrating the 4-9 Pioneers yet, but I'd be lying to you if I said there wasn't a fist pump ... or twenty in the Peters' household last night.

Until next time...

Ryan Peters covers Sacred Heart men's basketball for Pioneer Pride and Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

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