March 11, 2010

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Different season, familiar ending for CHC men’s hoops

CHC’s Francis Ashe (left) drives on Russell Frederick of Philadelphia University (right).

On the first of March, the Chestnut Hill College men’s basketball team saw its season end the same way it did in 2009, with a loss in the opening round of conference playoffs at Philadelphia University, the alma mater of Griffins coach Jesse Balcer.

Up until the last game of the regular season it looked as though CHC would avoid a first-round playoff date with the Philly U. Rams, the top-seeded team in the Southern Division of the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference. Chestnut Hill appeared headed for the third seed, but on the last weekend of February, Wilmington University defeated both the Griffins (56-55) and Northern Division leader Bloomfield College. This gave Wilmington the third seed and dropped the Griffins to number four, matching them up against the Rams.

Going ahead for good late in the first half, Philly U. triumphed, 64-54. It was a very different type of contest than the second regular-season meeting between the teams back in February, when Chestnut Hill pushed the game into overtime before the Rams prevailed, 94-92.

After the lower-scoring playoff bout, Philly U. coach Herb Magee explained, “That other game went overtime, first of all, and secondly, both teams really hit shots. Tonight we were concentrating on trying to keep them down and run a patient offense and use some time off the clock.”

Last Friday, Magee’s club did not fare well in another overtime contest; the two-time defending champion Rams lost a CACC semifinal game, 90-77, to New Jersey’s Felician College, the second seed from the Northern Division. With a 25-7 overall record, Philly U. still earned an invitation to the NCAA Division II tournament, receiving the fourth seed in the East Regional.

Although Chestnut Hill’s season ended at the same stage of the playoffs as the 2008-2009 campaign, the Griffins’ program progressed this winter.

“It’s a slow process, but we knew it would take time,” noted Balcer, whose squad just finished its third season of competition in NCAA Division II.

“We had a nice little run in the middle of the season that put us on the map in the conference,” he added, referring to a series of four straight CACC victories in late January and early February.

For the season as a whole, the Griffins improved their record both within the CACC and overall, going from 5-11, 6-22 in 2008-2009 to 7-10, 11-16 this time around. There is reason to believe the CHC squad can continue the upward trend.

Although guard Julian McFadden (the third men’s player in CHC history to score more than 1000 points) and forward Larz Jeter will be lost to graduation, Chestnut Hill has a lot of talented players returning. Among them are current juniors Brandon Williams and Trenton Davidheiser, a guard and a forward who each missed the majority of the Griffins’ games this season due to injuries.

Dan Comas, a sophomore forward, was one of just two players in the CACC to average a double-double this winter (11.1 points and 10.0 rebounds per game) and he received Honorable Mention in the All-Conference Team voting. Another second-year player, shooting guard Ryan Cook, averaged 13.7 points per game and freshman point guard Mark DiRugeris (who missed the final regular season game with a twisted ankle) averaged an even 14.0.

In last Monday’s playoff game, no more than half-a-dozen points separated the teams until the end of the first half. Four minutes in, Philly U. was up 12-6, and Jim Connolly, a freshman guard out of Souderton, already had two three-pointers and a shorter jumper in the book. Just past the ten-minute mark, the Rams broke out of an 18-all tie to go up by four, 22-18.

Defensively, Philly U’s Magee noted, “We wanted to slow down Cook – who did a great job - and also DiRugeris, because they were the two guys who hurt us the last time we played.”

The two young Griffins hit back-to-back buckets from the three-point loop, putting the visitors in front, 24-22, and forcing a Rams time-out with 8:54 left in the opening period. After a lay-up by Connolly was answered in kind by CHC’s Ashe, Philly finished the half with a 13-4 run powered by Connolly, senior Malcolm Ingram and sophomore J.J. Gundry.

“We started getting away from pounding the ball inside and started shooting jumpers, and they weren’t dropping,” observed Balcer, the Griffins’ mentor. “In typical Philadelphia University fashion, they started to pull away from us when we made a few mistakes. You don’t have much room for error when you play them.”

From a seven-point halftime deficit at 37-30, the Griffins saw their shortfall expand into double figures as the host team opened the second period with a 5-0 spurt. Two minutes in, Cook canned a trey for CHC’s first points of the period to make it 42-33. After that, the Rams’ lead hovered around 10 points for some time. Up 53-42 with nine minutes to go, Philly U. had Connolly score in transition, and then Gundry put back the rebound of his own shot.

Now behind by 15 points with under seven minutes remaining, the visitors needed to rally right away. Successful drives by DiRugeris and Cook each had a free throw added on, narrowing the gap to nine points. When the Rams fouled Cook again, CHC got into the double bonus and the sophomore sank both shots to make it a seven-point game, 57-50, with 3:45 on the clock.

Connolly hit a “three” from across the street to get the Rams going again. Chestnut Hill’s next two possessions ended with a missed shot and a turnover, then a foul by the Griffins put Philly U. into the one-and-one, and senior Russell Frederick deposited both shots for a 12-point lead (62-50) with just over two minutes to go. The Griffins never got closer than nine the rest of the way.

Piling up a dozen points in the final four minutes, Cook shared game-high scoring honors with the Rams’ Connolly as each finished with 22 points and four rebounds. CHC got 19 points and seven rebounds from Comas and 10 points and five boards from DiRugeris, while Ashe posted five points and four assists.

For Philly U., Connolly’s effort was complemented by 17 points, five rebounds, and three blocks by Gundry, and 16 points and seven rebounds by Ingram. Senior guard Marcus Lemon handed out 11 assists, in addition to scoring seven points and pulling four rebounds.

There wasn’t much difference in total rebounds or turnovers, but the winners made 49 percent of their shots from the floor, while Chestnut Hill was under 37 percent.

“I was a little disappointed with the way the season ended, but not a lot of teams get to go out with a win,” Balcer philosophized. “Overall, I thought the guys worked hard this season. We had some peaks and valleys, and the thing I liked to see was that we stuck together going through the valleys.”



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