NEWARK — Salesianum’s basketball team went through some tough times internally in the last month, coach Brendan Haley said, but the Sals came together as the playoffs approached. As the players grew closer, their play improved, at the right time of the year. As a result, the team will play for its second straight state title Saturday.
Donte DiVincenzo played like a Division I college player Thursday night, scoring 30 points and grabbing eight rebounds as the sixth-seeded Sals upset the No. 2 Mount Pleasant Green Knights, 60-49, in a semifinal contest at the Bob Carpenter Center. The Sals will play eighth-seeded Polytech on Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Bob.
Haley did not offer too much detail about the strife the Sals faced, but clearly it weighed on his team and the coaches. However, he was impressed with the way the players handled things.
“We just had a hard time pulling together as a group this year. Maybe it’s hard the season after a state championship,” Haley said. “They decided about four weeks ago that they actually cared about each other and didn’t want things to end no matter how far we got. They just didn’t want things to end the way things were going. We were down on each other. So they made the decision four weeks ago that that wasn’t going to be the way things were going to end.
“It’s pretty cool to watch how young men can talk to each other and pull themselves back together and apologize for things.”
DiVincenzo was the difference Thursday night, scoring 30 points on 11-for-19 shooting from the field. He was 5-for-10 from beyond the arc and made three of four foul shots. In addition, he had two blocks and directed his young teammates, serving as a coach on the floor. DiVincenzo said the Sals were not ready for the season to end.
“We lost a lot from last year, and we played a tough schedule this year. Every guy in that locker room has played his heart out all season long whether we won or lost. Coming into the tournament, we said we’re not going home yet. We’re playing hard, we’re playing to the very end,” he said.
The teams were close throughout the first half and for five minutes into the third before Salesianum’s seniors gave them the lead for good. After a layup by Keon Taylor put the Green Knights ahead, 35-34, DiVincenzo, Jebree Willis and Shane Clark scored the next 11 points. Willis hit a layup, followed by another layup off a missed three-pointer by Clark. A Willis steal led to a Clark layup, and following another steal by – you guessed it – Willis, DiVincenzo nailed a trey. That burst ended the third quarter, and the Sals led, 43-35.
A minute into the final quarter, Clark committed grand theft basketball, feeding DiVincenzo for an uncontested dunk in front of the Salesianum student section, clad in white shirts and ties. SeiQuann Kearney put an end to the 11-0 run, but the Sals were on their way.
Mount kept it close, pulling to within 51-47 on two foul shots by Raheim Burnett with 2:03 to play, but they could not get over the hump. Neither team would score again until just 43 seconds remained. The Sals scored their last five points on free throws.
DiVincenzo said the Sals had their regular-season game against Mount in mind. In that one, a 60-49 Green Knights win on Feb. 7, the Sals took a lead into the fourth quarter but were outscored, 22-6, in the final eight minutes. They learned from that experience.
“We knew we played well that first game up until the fourth quarter. We focused yesterday at practice on boxing out and crashing the boards, and we did that tonight,” DiVincenzo said.
Salesianum outrebounded the Green Knights, 29-25. Clark and DiVincenzo each had eight to lead the way.
The Villanova-bound senior did a lot, but not all, of the damage. Clark had 12 points, the only other player to reach double figures. Although it does not show on the score sheet, the Sals received big contributions from freshmen Paul Brown and Jamal Whittlesey, Jake Sherlock, Willis and Vincent Paoli. Their work was not overlooked.
“Donte’s just a special player,” Haley said. “Every time tonight we were in trouble, he made a huge play at one end or both ends. But other guys, like Jake, like Jamal, like Paul, they made plays tonight that get us excited about the future and, like I said, about our group.”
Kearney and Rob Myrick each scored 16 points to pace Mount Pleasant, which finished a fine season at 21-3. Burnett added 11.
DiVincenzo said Salesianum (13-10) is thankful for the chance to defend its championship after a season in which the Sals went 10-10 against a very tough schedule.
“It means a lot.”
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