FITCHBURG, Mass. –- St. John’s coach Bob Foley has no problem admitting it. The inside toughness was lacking in the Pioneers’ loss to Leominster last week, especially with Co-captain Charlie Murray out of the lineup.
But the opposite was true on Monday night’s showdown with rival Fitchburg. Behind a spirited post attack led by Alex Fisher (16 points, 9 rebounds), Drew Vittum (8 points, 12 rebounds), and Murray (8 points, 8 rebounds), the Pioneers (2-1) knocked off the Red Raiders (3-1) on their home floor at Doug Grutchfield Fieldhouse, 63-51.
"I was just so happy with this game, Fitchburg’s got a heck of a club and [Fitchburg coach] Jack Scott’s doing a great job with them," Foley said. "They’ve got a very, very good team. To come out of the gates, get our lead...in their gym you kind of wait for them to make their run, and every time they started to make a run our kids responded."
With two practices in the days following the Leominster loss, St. John’s made a concerted effort in those two practices to get the ball into the paint more often offensively, as well as ease the transition from football to basketball for point guard Davon Jones (8 points, 5 steals) and forward T.J. Kelley (12 points) -- both of whom were integral members of the Pioneers’ MIAA Division 2 State Finalist football squad.
“They seemed like they were ready to go tonight. They let us make runs to get it to nine, 11, and then they’d make a couple plays to stretch it out to 12 or 14 -- and that’s the sign of a good team,” Scott said. "They’re playing like we want to be playing in February, they’re playing like that right now -- at least they did tonight."
Fitchburg was led in scoring by junior guard Anthony Salome, who nailed four 3-pointers on his way to 16 points. The Red Raiders’ usual go-to scorer, Mick Snowden, was contained to just three points -- an outside jumper that came midway through the first quarter.
Murray, Jones the backbone for Pioneers: Jones and Murray may not have led the Pioneers in scoring against Fitchburg, but Foley came away most impressed by the play of the duo whom he considers to be the Pioneers’ leaders. Playing with a wrist that was heavily taped up didn’t stop Murray from making hustle plays -- whether that was pulling down offensive rebounds, or nearly tackling the players on the Pioneers’ bench in pursuit of a loose ball.
"He’s our co-captain, he’s a pretty tough kid under there -- a real competitor. He’s a leader, he’s encouraging all the other players. We still don’t play that many seniors, he’s always encouraging the other kids, he mixes it up under the boards, he’s always on the floor rolling around," Foley said. "The big thing there is that the other kids on our team see that…it makes them raise their level of toughness a little bit."
Jones has built a reputation for making plays all over the football field the last two years, but it was his playmaking ability on the hardwood that gave Scott and the Red Raiders headaches all night.
Scott called a timeout in the third quarter for the sole reason of strategizing how to keep Jones out of the paint, as the point guard was penetrating the Red Raiders’ defense at will, giving the Pioneers’ bigs plenty of open looks inside. Jones proceeded to, again, get into the paint on Fitchburg and set up three of the Pioneers’ next five baskets following the timeout.
"We were consciously trying to prevent that, and yet he still managed to weave his way into the lane," Scott said.
Foley had major praise for his point guard.
"Davon is ultimate quickness," Foley said. "It’s not very often you have a kid with that speed, but he’s not only fast, he’s a strong kid out there. He’s our leader out on the court, and Charlie is our emotional leader overall."
SJ owns the glass
The major difference in the game was the rebounding margin, which St. John’s won 37-18. Boasting the aforementioned front line, Foley came away satisfied with the Pioneers’ effort on the glass—particularly on the defensive end.
"I thought the defensive glass in the second half was the key to the game," Foley said. "On the offensive game we got a lot of shots, unfortunately we should have put more of them in, but pounding away out there in that last six or seven minutes they got one offensive rebound."
Scott agreed, mentioning that the box out will certainly need to be a point of emphasis in practice for Fitchburg for the foreseeable future.
“It was just a dominant performance on the offensive glass," he said. "We didn’t do a good job of rotating on the swings around the perimeter and get in good position to get a weak side rebound here and there. It was a combination of us failing to do what we wanted to do on the defensive end and them capitalizing on it."