by Dan Gardella

FAIRFIELD  For years, there has been bad break after bad break for Anthony Latina and his Sacred Heart program. From transfers, to injuries, to disappointment, this season’s team looked to change that narrative.

The Pioneers climbed the mountain and advanced to the Northeast Conference tournament semifinals for the first time since 2009 following a thrilling 61-59 win over Mount St. Mary’s, thanks to a last second put back by Jare’l Spellman.

Just a season ago, Sacred Heart sat in the same position, a three seed hosting a playoff game looking to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in their Division I history. That run ended prematurely.

The guys who came back this year did not forget that.

“Before the game, Koreem [Ozier] said ‘We know what happened last year. We’re back now. We don’t want that same feeling.’ We felt since that game last year, we worked on preparation to win tight games like this,” said forward E.J. Anosike.

Anosike finished with 16 points and 15 rebounds for his 18th double-double of the season. Out of those 15 rebounds, 10 of them came on the offensive glass, which was a repeating story for the Pioneers. The team grabbed 24 offensive rebounds, which translated to 19 second chance points.

We call each other the cleanup crew,” said Anosike. “When you get constant offensive rebounds, the other team gets tired. We keep putting an emphasis on trying to outwork the other team.”

After the Pioneers opened the game on a 7-0 run, Mount St. Mary’s responded quickly with back to back threes and took command of the first half, limiting Sacred Heart offensively, which led to a 33-28 halftime lead for the Mount.

Part of the battle for the Pioneers was not tough defense, but getting open looks to fall. They would need another something else to turn the tide.

Simply put, Zach Pfaffenberger found a way to put his fingerprint on this game. The sophomore contributed with 4 points and 5 rebounds in just 12 minutes of action, but gave Spellman and Anosike rest while helping the team not miss a beat.

This kept Sacred Heart in the contest. However, the Pioneers could not seem to find that momentum swing to put them ahead, thanks in large part to Mount St. Mary’s incredible efficiency from three. Time was beginning to become a factor.

Enter Anosike and the “Cleanup Crew”.

Following a Kinnon LaRose missed three-pointer, Anosike flew from the weak side and threw down a jam that sent the crowd at the Pitt Center into a frenzy.

“I think it was SportsCenter worthy,” Anosike joked.

Nevertheless, the play sparked the Pioneers to remain within striking distance and eventually took the lead on a layup by Aaron Clarke to put Sacred Heart ahead 58-57 with just over two minutes to play.

Clarke would add a single free throw later to make it a two-point game. However, Damien Chong Qui, who was a thorn in the Pioneers’ side all game was fouled and connected on a pair of free throws to tie the game at 59 with 19 seconds to play.

As Latina let his team play, Clarke drove on the right side and threw up a layup that was high on the backboard. After it hung for a second, the ball hit the floor and it seemed as all ten players went after it.

It miraculously ended up in Spellman’s hands.

The “Cleanup Crew” struck again.

After a long heave by Mount St. Mary’s misfired, Sacred Heart found themselves in the semifinals for the first time in more than a decade. Anthony Latina finally gets that elusive win in the postseason.

For me, my motivation is that we have so many great people here that have literally dedicated their professional adult lives to this school. They have been very supportive of me. Where I get my joy is seeing all these great people supporting us,” said Latina.

The job however, is not finished. Heck, it’s barely just begun.

The Pioneers now travel to St. Francis for a spot in the Northeast Conference title game on Saturday at noon. Sacred Heart dropped both of their matchups in the regular season, but that doesn’t mean anything once the calendar hits March.