and Jason Winchell
For The Dialog
NEWARK – As the seconds ticked away in Saturday’s boys state basketball championship final, Polytech’s Gabe Brown fired up one last three-point shot with about eight seconds to go. It kicked off the rim into the hands of Donte DiVincenzo. The Salesianum senior dribbled the ball upcourt, took a little hop-step and hurled the rock skyward. The buzzer sounded, and the Sals had successfully defended their state title from a year ago with a 52-45 win over Polytech at the Bob Carpenter Center.
DiVincenzo ran in a small circle and jumped into the arms of his waiting teammates as Salesianum completed what, for most of the season, seemed like an unlikely postseason run. The senior, who cemented his legacy at Salesianum, paced the winners with 23 points and 13 rebounds, both game-highs, and another banner for the wall in Father Birkenheuer Gymnasium.
The win was an exclamation point for those who doubted the Sals, who went 10-10 this regular season against arguably the state’s toughest schedule. Add the loss of three starters from the 2013-14 state champs, and it appeared at times this season that the Sals would have to wait until next year. But they rebounded and knocked off St. Georges, Appoquinimink, Mount Pleasant and Polytech to climb the mountain.
“We got tired of losing. We had to pick it back up,” freshman forward Jamal Whittlesey said.
DiVincenzo said his team needed to regroup after a late-season loss to Concord.
“Toward the end of the season we lost a tough one to Smyrna, and then we lost on Senior Night to Concord,” he said. “After that Senior Night, we just sat in the locker room and talked as friends, nothing else. We went over an assistant coach’s house and just relaxed. We let everything go over our shoulder and came into the playoffs with a clear head.”
Polytech hung close all day, even taking the lead twice, but the Panthers could not keep the Sals down. After a Timothy Butler trey gave the Panthers a 10-9 lead, the Sals responded with 11 straight for a 10-point advantage. Six of the points scored during that run came from Jake Sherlock, who provided a spark off the bench.
Salesianum (14-10) was ice cold in the third quarter, managing just four points as Polytech climbed back into it. The Panthers’ dynamic duo of Juwan Gray and Devaughn Mallory did a lot of the damage, finally finding some shooting touch inside. Another Butler three-pointer resulted in another one-point Polytech lead at 27-26, sending the 6th Man, Polytech’s raucous student cheering section, into a frenzy. Sals senior Shane Clark answered 20 seconds later with a layup, giving his team its first points of the third more than six minutes in. Clark added two free throws with a minute to go in the third for a three-point cushion heading into the final quarter.
DiVincenzo showed why he is headed to Villanova next season as the fourth quarter opened. With the Sals holding on by two, he banked in a layup as he was fouled, and he converted the old-fashioned three-point play. He rebounded a missed shot on Polytech’s next shot, and a few seconds after that, he drilled his third three-pointer of the day to make it 36-28. The hundreds of Salesianum students in their yellow shirts went nuts.
Thanks primarily to Gray and Mallory, the Panthers stayed close, cutting the deficit to five on two occasions, but DiVincenzo made sure they would not spoil his going-away party. He scored 13 of his points in the fourth, and teammates Clark, Sherlock, Paul Brown, Jamal Whittlesey and Jebree Willis were right there with him.
Sherlock scored seven points before fouling out with 2:14 to go. He did not want to finish the day on the bench, but he was confident.
“It was tough. I wanted to end it on the court and be able to finish that game, but walking off I knew that the guys on the floor would finish it strong,” he said.
Clark and Brown joined DiVincenzo in double figures with 11 and 10, respectively. Gray was outstanding in his final high school game, tallying 20 points and seven rebounds, while Mallory went for 13 points and a team-leading eight boards. The Panthers finished the season 23-2.