WORCESTER, Mass. – Having lost five of its last six games going into Friday night’s showdown with Central Mass. Conference rival St. John’s, St. Peter-Marian had hopes that its brutally tough schedule the past couple weeks would benefit in the end.
On Friday the Guardians, led by sophomore phenom Makai Ashton-Langford’s 26 points, did what they were unable to do on the road against St. John’s (12-2) a few weeks ago -- put the Pioneers away in the closing minutes. The result, a 64-57 victory for the St. Peter-Marian (6-5).
St. Peter-Marian suffered a devastating loss on Jan. 7 against the Pioneers, blowing an 11-point lead with three minutes to go. As if SPM didn’t have reason enough to circle this game on their schedule, losing to St. John’s in dramatic fashion only added fuel to the fire.
“We were hungry for this game, we’d been looking forward to this game ever since we lost to them,” Ashton-Langford said. “After we lost to them the first time we kind of went into a little slump, we were just inexperienced down the stretch. With four minutes to go we gave up…we knew that couldn’t happen again.”
In the past few weeks the Guardians have played against some of the state’s best teams, including the heartbreaking loss to No. 24, St. John’s three weeks ago, as well as losses to No. 1 Putnam, No. 6 Catholic Memorial and No. 9 Cambridge.
Though a tough stretch for the Guardians, the schedule gave them an opportunity to come together and fix their mistakes in a hurry. Their coach has seen progress each game, yet every loss too was a fresh reminder that the young Guardians weren’t quite “there” yet.
“We had a five game stretch where we played one of the toughest schedules in Central Mass.," SPM coach Marcus Watson said. "Through those lumps and bumps and lessons, we learned. We learned last time against St. John’s with four minutes to go up 11, that we can give a game away. It was these kids learning, persevering, and coming together as a group.”
Brown, Sweeney bring the hustle: Seniors Connor Brown and Sean Sweeney brought just the mentality that Watson had been looking for against St. John’s. The two each made several hustle plays that eventually swung the score in the Guardians’ direction.
Sweeney helped set the tone early in the first half, first diving out of bounds to save a ball that would have otherwise resulted in a St. Peter-Marian turnover. Minutes later, it was Sweeney who dove on the floor to beat St. John’s point guard Davon Jones to a loose ball, drawing a roar from the Guardians’ fan section.
“We’ve talked about [hustle] from day one, but they’re the ones that have to go out and do it. Sean, to get on the floor for the loose ball and kick it up the court to someone else who got fouled—that’s tremendous,” Watson said.
Brown had plenty of hustle plays as well, on several occasions diving on the floor for the loose ball or jumping to save a ball that was bouncing out of bounds.
His biggest play came with about 45 seconds to go in the fourth quarter. Up 59-54, Brown pulled up for a jumper to beat the shotclock, then got into the lane to pick up his own rebound to reset the clock and give SPM an opportunity to burn even more time off the clock -- much to his coach’s delight.
“And again, those are all thing we learned through our five losses. The kids realize that every time we step on the floor we’re going to get the other team’s best shot,” Watson said. “We’ve learned from our mistakes. We run a lot of drills running out the clock and executing...We’ve really prepared, through our losses, how to deal with things.”
Murray cleans up the glass: The Guardians were able to keep St. John’s forwards Alex Fisher and Drew Vittum very quiet, but they couldn’t do the same to Charlie Murray. Finishing with 13 points and 13 rebounds, Murray proved to be one of the most impactful players on the floor, using his body to create space and finish through contact in the paint.
Sophomore Adham Floyd, who is still adding strength after seriously injuring his knee during last spring’s AAU season, had perhaps his best game of the season, knocking down two treys and backing up Murray with 13 points of his own.
“Give St. John’s credit, they’re not gonna’ roll over and die. We jokingly said you have to be up by 30 to win by two,” Watson said, “I have nothing but respect for that locker room and for Coach Foley and all he does for those kids. This is a great win, but it’s just another win, just another game for us.”