By Dan Gardella
It was only three years ago when Sacred Heart finished the season 11-7 in Northeast Conference play and hosting a quarterfinal game against LIU Brooklyn. Cane Broome was the conference’s Player of the Year and Quincy McKnight was producing in a complementary role. They lost that game however, ending a fairly successful season in premature fashion.
Broome, who averaged over 23 points per game that year, took his talents to Cincinnati. The following season, McKnight transferred to Seton Hall, leaving head coach Anthony Latina a few years behind schedule in terms of success.
The next two seasons, the Pioneers squeaked into the NEC Tournament as the eight seed and then missed the tournament in 2018 by a game.
At this season’s NEC Media Day, St. Francis University head coach Rob Krimmel said, “You have to get old in this league” if you want to succeed in a mid-major conference like the NEC. The Pioneers were picked to finish ninth in the conference with eight newcomers (Seven freshman and one transfer), and just one senior on the roster.
“We have a lot of dynamic guys who can do different things,” said head coach Anthony Latina. “We’ve lost some good ones. It set us back a year or two. My assistants have done a good job identifying guys that are putting us back on the upper echelon.”
From the get-go, it was apparent Latina was ready to put a lot of trust in his newcomers. Freshmen Cameron Parker and Koreem Ozier were inserted into the starting lineup as well as transfer big man, Jare’l Spellman.
Following an opening game loss to Holy Cross in which they turned the ball over 20 times, the Pioneers dismantled Division II foe Western New England by 38 points. After the game, Parker and Ozier emphasized the importance of coming in and “changing the culture.”.
Then a bit of adversity struck.
Prior to participating in the Brown Bears Tipoff Classic in Rhode Island, several players were disciplined by both the team and the university, putting the Pioneers down several men, including Ozier.
With the lack of players, the Pioneers gave fans and other teams an idea of just how deep this year’s team truly was.
With the absence of Ozier, fellow freshman Aaron Clarke stepped in the starting lineup and played stable basketball at the guard position, posting a 24 point performance against Army and scoring in double figures six times while in the starting five.
The Pioneers entered conference play 4-9 and losers of four in a row. Entering conference play, Sacred Heart were coming off of losses to Seton Hall and St. John’s. But the script would be flipped with the new part of the season beginning.
The Pioneers rattled off two wins in a row to begin conference play behind sophomore E.J. Anosike, who scored 39 points and 20 rebounds in the wins. Anosike, who saw very little time his freshman season, was beginning to perform up to the standards the his coach expected from him.
At NEC Media Day, Latina said that Anosike should be in the conversation for the league’s Most Improved Player at season’s end.
The Pioneers would finish the first month of conference play 5-4, which already matched the win total they had in conference play from the season before. The team began February with two more wins against St. Francis Brooklyn and Fairleigh Dickinson before giving a game away to then last place Mount St. Mary’s.
As conference play progressed, it was apparent that the Pioneers progressed significantly on the defensive side of the ball, including holding Wagner to a season-low 39 points. The key was the man in the middle.
“We learned we needed to utilize Jare’l Spellman more,” said Latina. “We had to funnel people towards him.”
Spellman, a 6’11” transfer from Division II Florida Southern was ranked in the top five in the country in blocks per contest, providing a presence inside that Latina had never had before.
Sacred Heart then went on the road for four straight games in arguably the “Make it or Break it” part of the season. The team split its four games on the road to sit at 9-7 and returned home for the final two games of the season, against Robert Morris and St. Francis (PA), teams the Pioneers have had little success against in recent years.
They swept them behind their lone senior. Sean Hoehn averaged 22.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 3.5 assists while getting five steals to help the Pioneers finish 11-7 in conference play, third best in the league.
Not bad for a team picked to finish ninth.
“We have some high character guys, especially in our upperclassmen,” said Latina. “They have shown our young guys ‘hey this is what it takes’. Some of it is luck, some of it is hard work, or a little bit of both. When you have good players, coaches get a lot smarter. We’re blessed to have the guys we have.”
The postseason accolades flowed in for the Pioneers with Ozier and Parker landing on the All-Rookie team while Spellman took the Defensive Player of the Year. Anosike won the league’s Most Improved Player on his way to landing on the All-NEC Second Team and Hoehn found a spot on the All-NEC First Team.
The Pioneers now look to get over the hump and make the NEC semi-finals for the first time since 2009 when they take on LIU Brooklyn Wednesday evening.
“We’re excited about where we are. We think we have the pieces,” said Latina. “You can’t think about the next game because it doesn’t matter if you don’t win the first one.”
PHOTO: Anthony Latina/nhregister.com