BRONX, NY - Six games into the season, Mt. St. Michael coach Tom Fraher didn't know what to make of his team. He admitted to having doubts about his team and its toughness.
Could they play with the toughness and heart he desired? All that got put to rest of Thursday evening as his Mountaineers were gritty and gutty from start to finish as they held on to defeat Xaverian in the Bronx 52-51.
The questions for Fraher started to set in Tuesday after his team lost to Holy Cross. "I'm not usually like that, but I didn't like hour defense or toughness, and I did start to have doubts about these guys." Fraher said.
The toughness question went out the window early on in this one though as Stefan Chong came out and did a good job on the inside facing off against one of against Latiek Laney, one of the better young big men around. Chong was able to control the paint and limit Laney on the inside, even showing a good ability to catch and finish at the rim, which has been an admitted problem for him in the past.
Offensively though, the Clippers came out the better team early on. George Lambert did a good job hitting from the mid range, and Lamel Faison was creating havoc at the point finding the open man in tight spots all over the court as Xaverian was able to build an early 8 point lead.
Andrew Utate struggled early on from the perimeter as the defense closed in on him each time he touched the ball to limit his space to create for himself. Others had to step up, and one of those who did was sophomore guard Nukoy Singleton. He was able to get into traffic and finish slashing and driving in, playing with guts and smarts of a road tested veteran.
The Mount closed the half strong and behind solid defense and strong all around play, the hosts were able to take a 29-27 lead into the break.
Both teams defense continued to control play as finding open shots was hard to do. Faison continued to be a bright spot canning a couple open jumpers, while Chong was able to violently throw down a two handed jam late in the quarter off a beautiful feed from Singleton. Sayon Charles, another good looking sophomore for Xaverian, helped keep the game within striking distance with 4 late points in the quarter, but the Mountaineers went to the 4th up 39-37.
It looked like Xaverian was heating up from long range just in time at the start of the 4th as sharpshooter Joey Dello Russo connected on a couple long bombs to cut the deficit again to just 1, but Utate came back and nailed a big corner three to up the Mount lead again to 4.
Dello Russo would hit another big three with under a minute to go to once again knock the Mount lead to 1, and Xaverian stepped up the pressure causing Utate to air ball a three pointer with 13 seconds left. Xaverian would get the ball back with plenty of time to get up the floor and win the game.
The only problem was Mt. St. Michael had only been called for 2 fouls in the 2nd half up until this point, so after calling a timeout, Fraher instructed his team to foul, causing time to run off the clock, and the Clippers to not be able to get down the court for a winning shot attempt.
After 2 fouls, 4 seconds had gone off the clock. After another inbounds, Lambert dribbled the ball off his foot causing a turnover. Mount had the ball back with 7 seconds left. Now Xaverian would have to foul, but the Clippers had only been called for 1 foul the whole half, so with 6 fouls still to give until the bonus situation and only 7 seconds to go, it was too much. Time ran out before Xaverian could get Mount into the bonus, and the Mountaineers held on for a 52-51 win.
In the win the Mountaineers were led by the 11 points of Utate and Singleton, while Chong added 10 points and 12 rebounds. Xaverian was led by Faison who had a game high 13 points, with Dello Russo adding 9.
It was a unique way to win a game for sure for Mt. St. Michael, but after 20 years of coaching, Fraher said he had seen it all.
"I have seen that happen before, maybe not to the extent where we only had 2 fouls and they had 1, but it's happened, and I told the team to take advantage of that situation, let's use the fouls and luckily for us the kid dribbled it off his leg and committed that turnover." Fraher said.
Once the turnover was committed and Mt. St. Michael had the ball back, Fraher again knew that they had a big advantage.
"The ball bounced our way today. We were fortunate to get the win and have that happen against a really good Xaverian team."
It was a big performance from Chong who stepped up his game with an impressive double double, and even he came away a bit surprised by how the game ended.
"If we foul or our opponents foul it's usually because a team is down and they want the other team to shoot free throws. This time teams were fouled to make sure no one scored. It was a different situation for sure." Chong said.
In the loss, Xaverian coach Jack Alesi didn't want to hear about how youth may have played a factor, but the inexperience of his young Clippers squad is something that Alesi knows he will have to deal with for a bit.
"We have talent, but we are inexperienced and we are dealing with that now, but I can be patient because believe it or not, I liked a lot of what we did out there today." Alesi said. "I thought we competed and we came back and fought hard after they took the lead, and we had a lot of positive energy, it's just we made a lot of mistakes and that is inexperience."
The closing moments of the game also had the coach disappointed, but not seemingly frustrated or upset at the end result.
"He was trying to be a bit too cute with the ball and got sloppy, what can you do?" Alesi added
It was a unique finish, and one that hopefully both teams can learn from as they each continue to mature and get better as the season progresses.