Taking It to the Rack–February 9, 2017

St. Joseph’s Team Effort Results in Season that Defies Expectations

St. Joseph’s senior guard, Letrell West skies for the rim in warm-ups prior to the GMC Red Showdown with South Brunswick on January 12th. West has not only been the most improved player in the GMC this year, but the Falcons MVP in a season that has defied expectations.

On the eve of the 2017 GMCT seeding meeting, the St. Joseph’s Falcons find themselves in a familiar place. Despite losing to Old Bridge on Tuesday night, and having a 56 game regular season winning streak in the GMC Red snapped, the Falcons are likely to become the tourney’s top seed on Friday morning.

Over the past couple weeks, especially this past weekend, I spoke with a number of people, and they asked me what is going on with St. Joseph’s this year? I also spoke with a couple people at St. Joseph’s about the team this year versus the team last year. Basically put, it was a return to basics.

The Falcons went back to being the scrappy team it had been during the early years of head coach Dave Turco’s tenure. Back then, the Falcons didn’t really have too many superstars. True, they had Sean Baptiste in year one, but nothing like the teams of Marques Townes, Wade Baldwin, and Karl-Anthony Towns, or the team they had last year led by Tyus Battle and Bree Tyree.

There is no ego on the team. Led by the likes of Letrell West, Malachi Walker, and Mike Granda, who were all on last year’s team, the Falcons have nurtured a team with four freshmen including two in the starting lineup, and two sophomores while still managing to win 19 of their first 20 games along with its fourth straight Red Division title, and seventh in the past eight years.

All the players on the team rely on each other, and trust each other. That trust showed up on a couple of occasions that I was able to witness this year. The first time was at South Brunswick in the first GMC Red Showdown on January 12th. In that game, the Falcons led 36-21 at the half before giving way to a monumental 28-8 South Brunswick surge over the first 12:18 of the second half.

Spearheaded by a three point barrage led by Chris James, the Vikings of South Brunswick put St. Joseph’s on the ropes, and it appeared that the youth and inexperience really had begun to show. Down for the count, these Falcons showed incredible resilience. Sparked by a score from freshman, Richard Greaves, St. Joseph’s finished the game on a 13-4 tear.

Highlighted by a two handed jam from Walker, another score by Greaves, and then capped by a bucket from West with 12.5 seconds left, St. Joseph’s overcame South Brunswick for a thrilling 56-53 victory. Many teams in that predicament would have folded, especially with the youth and inexperience that these Falcons had. However, St. Joe’s didn’t fold, and that comeback brought with it a lot of confidence to the youngsters.

Fast forward 16 days later, and the non-conference game against Neptune of the Shore Conference’s Class A North Division. The Scarlet Fliers played a solid defensive game, and pretty much led throughout regulation including a 27-18 advantage early in the third quarter. Once again though, the resilient and confident Falcons grinded their way back into the game, and found a way to not only force overtime, but also win the contest, 47-46.

The play of Letrell West, who scored a team high 16 points had a lot to do with it, but it was also the clutch shooting of freshman guard, Tyree Taganeca-Ford, who chipped in with 15 points, that won the game. Ford, made three treys in the second half and overtime, all from about the same spot on the floor to not only get the Falcons back into the contest, but also put them over the hump in the extra session.

Even in the historic loss to Old Bridge, these Falcons showed some true grit. The Knights controlled much of the game, and actually led by 14 points with six minutes remaining according to NJ.com. However, St. Joseph’s rallied to tie the game, and force two overtimes before yielding. The loss should not put a damper on what has been a great year, and in all honesty, that’s probably a good thing to lose before the conference and state tournaments begin.

It is a lot of pressure to go through a season undefeated. You’ve seen that on a number of occasions over the year in the NCAA Tournament. The 2003-04 edition of the South Plainfield Tigers flirted with an undefeated season, but there was a moment during the GMCT where the magnitude of history seemed to have them on the ropes from my perspective.

In the 2004 GMCT Quarterfinals at South Brunswick High School, top seeded South Plainfield, at 20-0, took on ninth seeded Piscataway. The Chiefs, led by the likes of Manny Perotte and sophomore and eventual all time leading scorer, Rodney Freeney, weren’t given much of a chance by most people, but took it to the Tigers, and had the lead late in regulation.

The Tigers appeared tentative down the stretch of regulation, but managed to force overtime on the free throws from Ian Robinson. Then, inspired by a pep talk from the school’s eventual all time leading scorer, Marquis Jones before the start of overtime, South Plainfield got a huge three pointer from the right wing by Gary Houston, and were able to put P-Way away en route to its first ever conference title.

The 2003-04 South Plainfield Tigers would continue winning all the way until the North Jersey Section 2 Group 3 Championship against Raritan of Hazlet at Plainfield High School. There, the magical ride and undefeated season came to the end by just a matter of inches as Darren Smith’s jumper in the closing seconds was ruled a two instead of a three as his foot touched the three point line, and Raritan won, 53-52. South Plainfield finished 27-1.

So by getting that first loss of the season to Old Bridge out of their system, the St. Joseph’s Falcons should be able to play with less pressure and more confidence during the course of the tournament. With the leadership of West, Walker, and Granda, St. Joe’s has been able to play more like a team with less ego, and more trust in everyone on the floor while also playing tougher and scrappier defense. The result has been a season that has defied all expectations.