NEWARK — Maybe it was the shoes.
Junior guard Donte DiVincenzo came out of the locker room for Thursday night’s semifinal round matchup with Concord wearing the bright orange sneakers he had displayed several times this season. Against St. Elizabeth in the quarterfinals on Sunday, he had worn another pair, struggled all night and finished with just four points. When the top-seeded Sals met No. 4 Concord on Thursday night with a trip to the state championship on the line, his teammates told him it was time for the day-glo footwear.
DiVincenzo nailed his first field-goal attempt of the night – a three-pointer – just 14 seconds into the game, and the Sals were on their way to a 59-43 win in the DIAA boys’ state tournament at the Bob Carpenter Center. Salesianum (21-2) reaches the final for the sixth time in school history and the first time since 2004 against Middletown. The school has never won the title.
Salesianum coach Brendan Haley said he noticed a difference in DiVincenzo on Thursday, particularly after that first basket.
“A lot of times, he’s Joe Cool out there. But he was so excited. You could see, when he hit that first basket, almost like a relief came through him because he knew how bad he struggled the other night. We were just all thrilled when that went in, to see how excited he was,” Haley said.
DiVincenzo would score eight points in the first quarter on his way to a game-high 17 points. The Sals quickly built a 20-9 lead after the first quarter, shooting 80 percent (eight for 10), including four of six from beyond the arc. Concord (16-7) used its press effectively in the middle of the second quarter, and the Raiders cut the lead to five at 24-19 with an eight-point run. But the Sals responded, building the lead to double digits by halftime, and Concord could get no closer than 12 the rest of the night.
Salesianum senior forward Brian O’Neill said the difference between Sunday’s sluggish effort and Thursday’s commanding performance was in the approach.
“The big start helps. We built ourselves a little cushion,” said O’Neill, who finished with a double-double (16 points, 12 rebounds). “But we came out loose, we came out ready to go as opposed to the other game. We kind of felt the pressure. It was just fun. This team’s having fun out there. I don’t think anyone else has had as much fun as we have.”
The Sals figured out the press, with DiVincenzo hitting senior guard Joe McCusker more than once with a long pass for easy layups. McCusker finished with 14 points and also was stellar on defense, drawing the unenviable assignment of guarding Concord senior guard Joe Cooper, who will play Division I college ball next year at Wagner. Cooper finished with 16 points, but he hit just seven of 17 attempts from the field.
The Sals were cheered on by hundreds of their schoolmates, who stood out in the west end zone in their white shirts and ties. Concord’s students also came out in force to root for their team. The doubleheader sold out Thursday afternoon.
Salesianum will face St. Georges Tech, who beat Cape Henlopen, 64-55, in the first semifinal. The game is scheduled for Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Bob Carpenter Center. Tickets are $8 and available at diaa.ticketleap.com. DiVincenzo said St. Georges’ sophomore standout, Lamar Hamrick, is similar to Cooper in that he can create offense inside the paint as well as outside.
“But it’s just a basketball game. We’ll have the same game plan, same thing as Concord,” he said.
O’Neill said his team has to approach the final the same it would any other game. They can’t afford to get caught up in it being for the hardware or that it is the last high school game for many of the Sals.
“All we can do is our best,” he said. “We just have to worry about what we can control and the rest will take care of itself.”
One thing the Sals can definitely control is the color of DiVincenzo’s shoes. The orange kicks will be back on his feet come Saturday.