By MICHAEL LETENDRE
HARTFORD – The St. Paul boys basketball team looked up at the scoreboard in its second round showdown with Classical Magnet of Hartford and saw a 17-point, fourth period deficit.
And with 7:37 left to go in the game and with all the elements going against the visiting club, the Falcons didn’t show an ounce of quit.
St. Paul put together a huge run that almost turned the ultimate tide of the game.
In fact, St. Paul was one Kyle Dube three-pointer away from making the game a one possession affair with just over two minutes left to play.
The Gladiators simply had to battle through a fourth quarter that the Falcons defensively turned into a hornets’ nest of epic proportions. But in the end, Classical did just enough to hang on as the second seeded Gladiators defeated No. 15 St. Paul 71-64 in a Class S state tournament challenge from Hartford on Saturday, March 8.
Credit belongs to the Falcons (12-11) for a remarkable season. Trailing the Gladiators 56-39 on a blazing 23-10 run as St. Paul’s defense force several turnovers, St. Paul made it a 66-62 contest with 55 seconds left to play.
The ball simply bounced Classical’s way late as the Gladiators (21-3) failed to hit late free throws but cashed in on offensive rebounds for late game hoops off those charity toss misses.
The Gladiators simply attacked in the painted area throughout the game, showed crafty interior passes prowess, worked through the St. Paul zone for lay-ups while forcing the Falcons into 19 turnovers – many of which were turned into points to put up one of its toughest wins of the campaign.
“It seemed like Classical capitalized on each error we made whether it was a turnover or an ill-advised shot,” said St. Paul Steve Phelps. “It just seemed like we were there but we were a little bit away.”
The Gladiators had to sweat out every possession as St. Paul refused to yield and every time it looked like Classical was about to run away with the game, the Falcons kept storming back.
Classical lacked size and when St. Paul went to its tallest lad – 6-foot-4 D.J. Rodriguez, the sophomore made an impact and tallied four points and five rebounds in a very busy first quarter of action as the Falcons led early and often.
For the game, Rodriguez ended up with six points, 11 rebounds – five off the offensive glass – and blocked a couple shots in, perhaps, his biggest performance of the campaign.
“He started slowly and I think the pace caught him by surprise,” said Phelps of Rodriguez. “But when challenged, he really dug in and he did a heck of a job banging on the boards and being accountable.”
Nick Villani also created havoc off the bench with a very important seven points, four assists, and four steals and when St. Paul went into it press, the junior showed very well.
Of course, the usual suspects made strong showings for the Falcons as Kyle Dube ended a very impressive campaign with 21 points, five rebounds and per his usual, was a pest on defense while Brendan Carroll was strong with 14 points and blazed in four three-pointers.
Jordan Rowley ended his career with four points and three rebounds, Reid Morin – fighting gamely through foul trouble and injury – posted a couple points, rebounds, and assists in trying to keep the Falcons in the fray.
Tyler Jones added eight points and six rebounds while Jake Kawiecki flipped in three rebounds and two assists off the pine.
But the Falcons also got critical contributions from Daija Fitzpatrick (two points), Troy Micale, and freshmen Austin Morin as the trio gave the starters valuable rest on the bench.
For Classical, Trifon Bish threw in 19 points while Marcus Gillespie added 17 as the Gladiators attacked the hoop with zest and from the start of the second period to midway through the third, the team nailed 15-of-20 field goals to pick up a double-figure edge in the third stanza.
Overall, Classical drilled 30-of-53 shots from the field (56.6 percent) while St. Paul hit 26-of-61 attempts (42.6 percent) but the Falcons out-rebounded the Gladiators on the offensive glass 15-10.
But St. Paul made Classical pay on the defensive end as well as the home team racked up 21 turnovers and that had an effect over the final 7:00 of the game.
The game was an up and down affair early as both teams tasted the lead.
Classical started the fray off with a 6-2 push as Gillespie hit for all three shots before a St. Paul 8-0 burst – highlighted by two offensive rebounds and put-backs by Rodriguez gave the Falcons a 10-6 edge with 3:32 left to go in the first period.
A late lay-up by Fitzpatrick made it a four point game with 36 seconds left in the frame and even as the Falcons captured a 16-13 lead after eight minutes of action, Classical went on a major run to grab a nine point push.
Off a blazing 13-0 gallop – aided by three straight St. Paul turnovers to open the second period – the Gladiators built a 25-16 tilt with 5:31 left in the first half.
But Carroll came back with an incredible shooting exhibition as he drained three straight three-pointers in a matter of 1:38 as his last trifecta knotted things at 25-25 with 3:36 before intermission.
But Gladiators used its quickness to snatch the edge as an 11-4 burst – capped by a lay-in by Tim Flynn – made it a 36-29 game at the half.
Classical scored 23 points in the second frame and added 18 additional in the third as hot shooting by the home team pushed the lead out to double figures shortly after the halftime break.
However, pesky St. Paul hung around early as a lay-up from Villani and a bucket by Rowley cut the deficit to 38-33 with 5:55 left in the third.
But Classical scored the next nine points, absorbed a hoop by Jones, and a nifty scoop shot by Dube and the Gladiators followed up with a 7-2 run to end the tilt as a baseline jumper from Zach Hatzisavvas made it a 54-39 game with one quarter remaining.
And things were looking bleak off the first basket of the fourth as another lay up by Albertinie propelled the home team to a 17 point edge with 7:37 left.
However, slowly but surely, the Falcons increased the defensive intensity and Classical began to spin and sputter through the final seven minutes of action.
Carroll hit his fourth three, which started a 11-4 run, and Dube capped off the jaunt with a three-pointer of his own. Suddenly, the defensive intensity was paying off and St. Paul only trailed by three possessions at 60-51 with 4:15 left to play.
“Down 17, we had no other option but to pressure,” said Phelps. “The character and the fortitude, whatever the other adjectives our kids played with to turn that deficit, to play their pants off the way they did defensively and for each other, it makes you proud to be the coach of the St. Paul Catholic basketball team by all means.”
Off another Classical hoop, Villani nailed his biggest three-pointer of the year and Dube followed up off a steal and lay-up and suddenly, the Falcons were down only by six, 62-56, with 2:34 remaining.
Another quick St. Paul steal saw Dube line up for a NBA three-pointer from the top of the key. But the ball bounced off the back of the iron and failed to fall as Classical – which would have only led by three with 2:15 left if that three-pointer found the bottom of the net – still led by six and dodged a serious bullet.
Over the next 75 seconds, the teams traded hoops. But a bucket by Rodriguez made it a 66-62 game with under a minute left and St. Paul was clearly still in the mix.
Classical cooperated off its next possession as the Falcons were forced to foul down the stretch. But Jerome Darling missed the front end of a one-and-one situation as Dube snared the rebound and the Falcons were looking to make it a two-point game with a quick hoop.
With 40 seconds left, Carroll turned the ball over and off the miscue, the Falcons fouled Trifon Bish. He missed two straight free throws. But an offensive rebound and hoop by Gillespie made it 68-62 as time was running out for the road team.
Dube eventually threw in a lay-up with 4.9 seconds left to cut it to 68-64. But the Falcons got no closer as Classical closed out St. Paul’s season with three additional points to close out a seven-point victory as the Gladiators barely survived to advance to the quarterfinal round of the Class S tournament.
“Our tournament preparation, I thought, was great,” said Phelps. “The things we were able to do to get ready to play in this shortened season, I thought our kids were involved. It sounds kind of corny but you wonder why sometimes you coach. I look at something like this tonight and it’s an honor for me…it’s an honor.”
By MICHAEL LETENDRE