Rutherford, NJ - It is now February. We have our March Madness at the college level. In New Jersey high school basketball February is a month where conference and some post season champions are crowned. On this night St. Mary is hosting DePaul.
Back during my student manager days, a few decades ago, at St. Mary (then St. Mary’s) DePaul was in our conference. The league included other catholic schools as Paramus Catholic, St. Cecelia and Pope Pius. The latter two institutions have long been closed. Tonight, opposing DePaul is an independent clash as both schools are in different conferences.
The St. Mary gym is packed. A great sign as regular season games in many areas, not just Northern New Jersey, struggle to get gyms at half capacity. St. Mary seized the excitement of the moment jumping out to a 9-2 lead. coach Brian Gaccione’s Gaels feed off pressure defense and transition. As a very fast, uptempo quarter ends the host Gaels hold an 11-4 lead.
The second quarter is a different story. DePaul does a better job of getting back on defense to cut off transition. On offense the Spartans show more patience. St. Mary is in a man to man defense. DePaul does not rush, making the extra pass for a good shot. The Spartans, especially Johnny Cotton, find the range. St. Mary has chances but goes cold. The Gaels had opportunities but the shots, whether from the perimeter or second chances close in, didn’t fall. Gaccione switched to a three quarter court 1-3-1 to get DePaul off balance. Regardless, the visitors rang up 29 second quarter points to take a 33-27 lead into the break. A two possession deficit is far from definitive but Gaccione had to be concerned given the second quarter the Gaels struggled through.
Halftime gave an opportunity to connect with fellow St. Mary alums and members of the local basketball community. Among them were Joella pounds and Eddie Ryan who starred for the respective girls and boys teams were present. Both played for the Gaels roughly two decades ago yet look fit enough to take the court today. Bobby Blackjack-Guarente, a frequent press row neighbor of mine for Seton Hall women’s games, was working the video.
Third quarter saw DePaul increase the lead to ten. The Spartans are in man to man defense but keep one player in the lane to cut off dribble penetration. St. Mary regrouped, found the range, stepped up the defense and went on a run to retake the lead. The Spartans were limited to seven third quarter points as St. Mary took a 41-40 lead into the final eight minutes.
The last quarter saw the lead change hands a number of times. With four minutes remaining, proverbial crunch time, the teams were tied. With multiple lead changes over that stretch It still remained a one possession affair. Sixty three seconds remaining with St. Mary nursing a one point lead a key possession played out. The Gaels had the ball, a guard was in the high post with a foot in the lane. The guard was not part of the play but suddenly whistled for a three second violation. Gaccione contested then paced the sideline saying to anyone in ear shot "how can you make that call at this time." DePaul regained the lead. They hit two free throws to increase the margin to three points. St. Mary had the ball with five seconds left. Following a timeout, they inbounded the ball but the shooter bobbled it then released a desperation three point attempt that was well off The Spartans prevailed 57-54.
Jordan Ghee of DePaul led all scorers with 20 points. Cotton added 16, including four from beyond the arc. L. J. Falconi led St. Mary with 14. Luke Gaccione and Julien Leveille added 11 for the 13-3 Gaels.
After talking with the team Gaccione came out to discuss the game with several people. He spotted a game official leaving and immediately sought him out. The coach was very calm and respectful questioning the three second call. The official said the player was warned to get out of the lane (proper thing to do from an officiating standpoint) but didn’t comply. Still. Gaccione questioned the official, "with no three seconds calls made all night, how can you do it at that point on a player not involved in the play?" After the official exited, Gaccione still discussed the play. What made it tougher for the coach to handle was the fact the DePaul coaching staff was calling for the Spartans to foul. "We were up one and they were going to foul us," Gaccione noted. "Then that call."
When it was suggested, missed easy shots and missed free throws were the primary factor in the setback, Gaccione agreed. The three second call had an effect but was not the reason the Gaels dropped a heartbreaker.
Exiting the gym Gaccione spotted the DePaul players waiting for their team bus. He congratulates them and wishes them well the rest of the way. "We were so close," he said as he walked to his car. "We scheduled tough independent games to get ready for the conference and state tournaments," he said. "We have to get one of these (independent games). They were a good team and we were so close."