by Dan Gardella

Fairfield – At this time last year, Sacred Heart had the likes of E.J. Anosike, Koreem Ozier, Kinnon LaRose, and plenty of other established players at the college level. Responding always followed adversity without doubt. 

This year, that culture was unknown with the now youngest team in college basketball. Wedged into the mix have been obstacles beyond anyone’s control. On Wednesday night, Sacred Heart scored five points in the final nine minutes of the game, turning a one-point lead into a 20-point defeat. 

How would the Pioneers respond? 

The team would learn from the shortcomings they had 24 hours prior. Behind Tyler Thomas, who filled the stat sheet on a career night, Sacred Heart would bounce back and capture their first win of the season in an 87-72 win over LIU. 

After playing behind experienced guards last season, Thomas set career-highs with 23 points, nine rebounds, and six assists in 37 minutes to pace the Pioneers. With the ball in his hands more as one of the more experienced players, the comfort level is even higher for him. 

“For any player, extended minutes will always help your confidence,” said Thomas. “Coach Latina always believes in my game, my teammates believe in my game, so I have to believe in myself too.” 

One of the other keys to the win on Thursday night was how well Sacred Heart protected the basketball. In the loss to the Sharks the night before, the Pioneers turned the ball over 23 times, which led to 15 points for LIU. In the victory, Sacred Heart only committed 11 giveaways. 

“Tonight, we played with more poise, and I thought we shared the ball better,” said Latina. “We were getting a lot more shots off passes. Yesterday was all one-on-one. When you do that against a team that has good length and quickness, turnovers happen.” 

As the college basketball season is almost a month in, Sacred Heart has not had the preferred amount of fluidity for practices and games. It’s even tougher especially when you need them to assess the newcomers and their talent.

“From a minutes standpoint, because you have such a little sample size, we are going to try to go with the hot hand and see who is playing well,” said Sacred Heart head coach Anthony Latina. 

Production and minutes from Thomas, Aaron Clarke, and Alex Watson are a given. After that, Latina has been riding with the hot had of some of his newcomers. 

Freshman Mike Sixsmith, who Latina compared to former Pioneer guard Sean Hoehn, has seen no fewer than 20 minutes a night through the first three games. In those minutes, Sixsmith has averaged nine points per game while shooting 7-10 from downtown. 

JUCO transfer Cantavio Dutreil has been the rebounding savior for the Pioneers after the losses of E.J. Anosike and Jare’l Spellman. Dutreil has grabbed 31 rebounds in 66 minutes played. Although a small sample size, Dutreil averages 18 rebounds per 40 minutes. 

Both Sixsmith and Dutreil have impressed early on in their respective Sacred Heart careers and should be seen as having the hot hand in Latina’s eyes, playing behind the experienced trio. 

After having a career night, Thomas’ performance further affirmed his standing as the number one option for the Pioneers. 

“He is our number one scoring option without question,” said Latina. “We’re going to call his number a lot. When we need a basket, we will go to him.”

Following a split of the season series against LIU, Sacred Heart travels to Staten Island for a pair of games against Wagner on Dec. 21 & 22.