WILMINGTON – Brian O’Neill picked up two early fouls in Tuesday night’s boys basketball showdown with Sanford, and when the Salesianum senior forward returned to the game in the second quarter, he knew his presence on the court was a key to the Sals’ chances against the top-ranked Warriors. O’Neill stayed out of foul trouble and established himself as a key, scoring 15 points and collecting 18 rebounds in No. 2 Salesianum’s 62-49 win.
Sanford had few answers for O’Neill, who used not only his 6-7 height but his bulk as well to pretty much own the defensive glass. Sanford struggled from outside, and O’Neill and his teammates denied the inside routes.
“I knew I was a lot thicker, a lot bigger build than them,” O’Neill said. “That’s something we emphasized. We’re going to have the advantage in the paint. I think that showed tonight in terms of rebounding and post presence.”
Salesianum coach Brendan Haley said O’Neill responded well after picking up the early fouls. “Brian was huge for us. He obviously got into foul trouble early. We trusted that he could adjust the fact that he had two fouls, and he did. It’s an advantage we knew we had in terms of size, and it’s good to see the kids understand that and play to that advantage.”
O’Neill was on the bench much of the first quarter, but the Sals managed a 13-10 lead thanks mainly to junior guard Donte DiVincenzo, who scored seven points in the stanza, including two on a majestic alley-oop from Shane Clark that gave Salesianum a 6-0 start. But he struggled to hit shots as the half progressed, and Sanford took advantage. A steal and layup by Sanford senior forward Anthony Mosley as the second quarter began gave the Warriors the 14-13 lead, and O’Neill returned to the floor. He scored the next six points himself to lift Salesianum to a 19-14 advantage.
Eric Ayala ended O’Neill’s streak with a three-point shot, one of two he would hit during the second quarter. The teams went into the locker room with Sanford holding a one-point lead at 25-24.
The Sals and Warriors were neck and neck throughout the third. With the game tied at 35, Salesianum’s Joe McCusker nailed his second three-point field goal of the game to make it 38-35, but Sanford freshman guard Mikey Dixon responded immediately with a trey of his own to tie it up again.
With O’Neill back on the bench after picking up his third foul, Salesianum found an inside presence in J.T. Harrar, who scored four points in the third to help the Sals take the lead for good.
With its raucous student section roaring, Salesianum gradually stretched its lead in the fourth. The Sals opened the fourth on a 10-2 run, extending the advantage to 52-41. Senior David Barone scored eight of his career-high 14 points in the final quarter, hitting four of six from the free-throw line. Sanford did not hit a field goal until the final minute of the game and could get no closer than nine points back. When the final buzzer sounded, Salesianum’s students rushed the floor.
Barone said the Sals ran some simple screen and rolls designed to give DiVincenzo the option to shoot or pass, and with the Warriors paying attention to the two main weapons, others, such as him and McCusker, were able to step up. He said it felt good to beat Sanford for the first time since he’s been at Salesianum.
“I don’t think we’ve beaten Sanford in the last seven, eight years, if not more,” Barone said. “We came off a tough loss to Constitution (Pa.), and I thought that really boosted our morale. We weren’t really intimidated going in; we were neck and neck with (Sanford). The competition we play was just as good as the competition they (Sanford) play.”
The Sals’ last win over the Warriors came on Jan. 9, 2009.
Haley said the anticipation of the game around the school was high leading up to Tuesday, and his team fed off the energy inside the sold-out building. It was a big win, but the Sals need to keep it in perspective.
“That is a tremendous program that we were able to get the win against tonight. I have a ton of respect for (Sanford coach) Stan (Waterman) and for everything that that program represents. It means a lot because of the atmosphere, because of the support of our student body and everybody that was there tonight. It means a lot, but it was also just a regular-season game. Our goals are still ahead of us,” he said.
One of the spectators was Villanova University men’s basketball coach Jay Wright, whose team is ranked in the top 10 in the country. Wright was there to watch DiVincenzo, who has verbally committed to the Wildcats, and perhaps a few others on the two talented squads. He has a history with Sanford as well, having recruited Wilmington native and Warriors alumnus Will Sheridan several years ago.
Waterman said he would love for his team to get another shot at Salesianum in the state tournament. The teams, he said, have a mutual respect for each other.
“I’d love to play them again. They’re pretty good, and we’re going to be pretty good, and I’d love to see them again down the road,” Waterman said. “I give all credit to Sallies, they played well. They just played all around a great basketball game tonight, much better than we did.”
Joining O’Neill and Barone in double figures were McCusker, with 14, and DiVincenzo, who had 13. Ayala led all scorers with 17, while Anthony Mosley added 10.
Salesianum improved to 10-2 on the season and meets St. Elizabeth at home Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. Sanford suffered its first in-state loss and is now 7-4 heading into games Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at Westtown (Pa.), Friday against Rancocas Valley (N.J.) in Atlantic City, and Saturday at Wilmington Friends.