WORCESTER, Mass. –- Just when it looked as if St. Peter-Marian might finally get past archrival St. John’s in the Division 1 tournament, the Pioneers had one more comeback up their sleeve.
In front of an electric, standing room-only crowd at Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Harrington Auditorium on Sunday night, the Pioneers overcame a seven point halftime deficit to knock SPM out of the Division 1 Central tournament for the second time in three years, sealing a 61-59 victory via two free throws by senior captain Charlie Murray with ten seconds left.
“I never look at the guy at the free throw line, 'cause it doesn’t do you any good,” St. John’s coach Bob Foley joked after the game, “He’s a kid who sometimes struggles from the free throw line, but our kids have the confidence to put the chips on the table and put those [free throws] in...and he put those right down the middle.”
Murray, the Pioneers’ “energy-guy” who is known for his ferocity on the defensive glass and his ability to get to the free throw line, got to the free throw line in the closing moments following a perfect no-look pass from sophomore Adham Floyd (14 points).
“It’s hard, it’s definitely hard,” said of the pressure of hitting the free throws, “Just a lot of practice. It’s great that I got to the line and made the free throws, hard work pays off, but at the end of the day it takes the hard work of all 15 of us to get where we are now. It’s great I made them, but I wouldn’t be able to do it without anyone else.”
Floyd leads Pioneer defense: Floyd, who suffered a serious injury to his knee last spring, helped anchor a second half where St. John’s was able to dictate the pace of the game. The Pioneers struggled to keep up with Guardians’ star sophomore Makai Ashton-Langford (25 points) in the first half, but Foley made the decision to go to a man defense in the second half.
The decision paid dividends quickly for St. John’s, as they forced turnovers on the first three SPM possessions of the second half. Following each turnover, the Pioneers added two points quickly on the other end. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, the Guardians’ lead had disappeared.
“It’s a chess match. We had played zone most of the first half and came out man-to-man, and played a whole lot of man-to-man in the second half. You never know what’s going to work until you try it in a game, you just have to bounce back and forth,” Foley said.
Floyd made two big stops for the Pioneers in the closing moments of the game, blocking a putback attempt by SPM senior Connor Brown that would have put the Guardians ahead. After he found Charlie Murray in the post and Murray converted the free throws at the other end, it was on Floyd to stop Ashton-Langford, one of the best scorers in the state, from getting a basket.
“I thought Adham Floyd did a great job, he played great defense coming off a bad knee injury. His speed isn’t there yet but he’s so good with his hands and getting his hand on the ball,” Foley said.
Murray added: “[Floyd] stepped up, he had a great game. Even on that last play, he made that drive and made a great dish to me – very unselfish. He’s a great player, he played hard today.”
The streak continues: The win puts the Pioneers in the Central Mass. Division 1 title game this coming week against Franklin. The game will be St. John's seventh consecutive appearance in the Division 1 Central title game. As a program they have made the championship game 31 times. Foley was quick to point out that not all of those championship games were his teams, but getting deep into the tournament all those times has given him plenty of experience in tuning out crowds.
“You pray a lot,” Foley said with a laugh, “I don’t hear the crowd, I never hear the crowd at the game because I focus on what’s happening. It’s no problem for me, you’re just hoping that your kids do the right thing. I thought we just did everything right at the end of the game.”
They’re a great group of kids, they hung together. It’s a game that just drains you emotionally, physically, and whatever, but they hung in there at the end.”
Floyd agreed, saying that the Pioneers’ confidence in Foley’s gameplan was the difference down the stretch:
“We just listen to coach. It comes with confidence...and being a team. I think we’re a better team than them, we stayed together.”
Far from his first appearance at WPI, Murray said the Pioneers are motivated to avenge their loss to Milford in last year’s Central Mass. final.
“We’re back, it seems to be a habitual thing, but I’m just happy I get to play another game with these guys. I love the team I’m on.”
TJ Kelley and Davon Jones scored 13 and 12 points, respectively, while Greg Kuakumensah contributed 13 points for the Guardians.