By Dan Gardella
Fairfield – At this point of the season, the Sacred Heart Pioneers have put themselves on a path to have one of the best improvements in the conference from last season to this season in terms of record, offense, and overall execution.
But one thing was still lacking. Defense. Something that can end a team’s season earlier than expected
It’s safe to say that message was received and the statement was made as the Pioneers tied the team’s Division One record defensively, only allowing 38 points and holding Wagner to 18% shooting as they bounced back from their loss against St. Francis Brooklyn and take down the Seahawks 62-38.
Along with the loss to St. Francis Brooklyn, the Pioneers fell behind early to Wagner in their previous meeting, just eight days ago.
The Pioneers ensured they would not fall behind again as they took the lead just 17 seconds into the contest and pitched a shutout against the Seahawks early on. Four and a half minutes in, Sacred Heart led 7-0.
“Very important,” Sacred Heart head coach Anthony Latina said about the importance of taking the early lead. “They are a tough team and they are extremely well coached. They control the tempo well. When you get down, it is an uphill climb. It is a different kind of game.”
Sacred Heart scored the first 11 points of the game before Wagner could finally get on the board, thanks to an AJ Sumbry post shot.
After Sumbry’s shot got Wagner on the board, the Pioneers responded by scoring seven straight points to make it 18-3 eight and a half minutes in.
With the double digit lead early on, the mission on the defensive end was the slow down Romone Saunders, the second leading scorer in the NEC, averaging 18.8 points per contest.
“He’s obviously a great player,” Latina said. “You are not going to stop a guy like that by yourself. So our focus was team defense. We really wanted to take away his threes.”
Arguably the biggest difference on the defensive end was the emergence of redshirt junior Jare’l Spellman. The 6’10 big man battled through foul trouble in their last game and was not much of an impact. Today, he swatted a career-high nine shots and changed the game on the interior.
“He’s so unique at this level,” Latina said of the forward. “He can be an x-factor for us. Most teams don’t have a rim protector like that. We have to utilize that.”
After opening the lead to double digits six minutes in, the Pioneers continued to stifle the Seahawk offense and took a 17 point lead into halftime.
In the second half, Wagner would still be unable to get any flow to their offensive game. Missing shots, sloppy play, and lack of execution is uncharacteristic for a team coached by Bashir Mason.
“I think we are just trying to find things within our culture,” Mason said. “Who is going to play hard, who is going to tough it out.”
The Pioneers would continue to frustrate the Seahawks defensively. Although only forcing seven turnovers for the game, Wagner would only managed to make 11 field goals. On a night where the Pioneers were not always clicking on offense, their defense picked up the slack.
“One of the things that former coach (Dave) Bike always said is ‘Good teams can win in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.’ We’ve shown that we can score 80 or 90 points. But to win a game in the sixties or fifties, you are going to have to play in games like that. Especially in conference tournament time,” Latina said.
Sacred Heart would simply keep Wagner at bay and cruise to the 24 point victory.
With the win, the Pioneers (8-11, 4-2 NEC) set up a marquee meeting with Robert Morris on Thursday in Pennsylvania. The Colonials sit atop the conference with a 5-1 record.
“We have to start winning road games if we want to be a true contender,” Latina said. “Robert Morris plays very similar to Wagner. Very physical, very good defensively.”
Sacred Heart was led by EJ Anosike, whose progression continues to reap benefits for the Pioneers. The sophomore scored 19 points and grabbed eight rebounds. From his freshman season to now, motivation from his teammates has helped him be the player he is now.
“We just try to be in the gym everyday as a collective group,” Anosike said. “When I see Jare’l (Spellman) in the gym, I’m like ‘Then I definitely need to get in the gym’. We all try to outwork each other which ultimately makes us all better.”
Wagner (8-9, 3-3 NEC) were led by Saunders, who score 12 points but struggled all afternoon, shooting only 3-12 on the day. For Mason, a game like this can only be used as a learning experience.
“You have to watch this game,” Mason said. “It’s a way for them to get better. But then it’s going to be a total team effort. Are those guys trusting me to put them in better position?”
PHOTO: Dan Gardella