NEWARK — Salesianum plays one of the toughest schedules in Delaware high school basketball, and they do so for moments such as this. The fifth-seeded Sals withstood a late William Penn rally and defeated the No. 7 Colonials, 48-44, to capture the DIAA boys basketball championship on March 11 at a rocking, sold-out Bob Carpenter Center.
It was the school’s third hoops state championship and the first since going back-to-back in 2014 and ’15. It also helped erase any lingering memories of last year’s title game, when Tower Hill ambushed the Sals on the way to the crown. Sallies coach Taylor Trevisan, however, said the loss to the Hillers was not as motivating a factor as people might believe.
“None of that with last year’s game came up with these guys,” he said. “It was about focusing on us and what we had to do to get better game to game, practice to practice, ultimately to get to this point.”
The teams were tied at 10 after a quarter, which started and ended with three-point shots by Kareem Thomas. Another three ball, this one by Justin Hinds, put the Sals in front, 15-14, with 4:30 to go in the first half, and they used that momentum to build the lead. Hinds’ shot began a 14-4 run to end the first half. Isaiah Hynson followed Hinds with his own three, and R.J. Johnson scored on a follow shot to extend the lead to six. Hynson added an old-fashioned three-point play, and Thomas drained another three-pointer as the team took an eight-point advantage into the break.
“I thought the theme this year was to come out with energy. I felt like a lot of the games we lost, we started off slow. Later in the game, by the time we got rolling, it was too late,” Hynson said.
Johnson grabbed a defensive rebound two minutes into the third quarter and scored at the other end as the lead increased to 31-20, and the Salesianum students who filled an end zone at the Bob could hardly contain their excitement. But the Colonials, who defeated the Sals by 12 in the regular season, began chipping away at the lead.
Penn scored the next six points, with Kai Gatson and Michale Wilmore both going inside for layups. Wilmore was fouled on his attempt and completed the three-point play. Emmanuel Vonhm hit a free throw. Hynson scored to end the run, and the Sals led by seven as the game headed to the fourth.
Hynson connected again to open the frame, but the Colonials would not go away. Jaiden Guy began the comeback with a step-back jumper and was fouled, although he missed the free throw.
A minute and a half passed before Vonhm made a transition layup, and after another minute-plus of missed opportunities for both teams, Wilmore converted two free throws. That cut the Sals’ lead to 41-38, the closest the game had been since it was 33-30 late in the third. Thomas got those back for the Sals, their first points since Hynson’s jumper, but Jalen Sample answered with a field goal.
William Penn cut the deficit to one, but the Sals’ defense made them work for those points. Sample picked off a Sallies pass and streaked toward the other end of the court. He rose for a layup, but Hynson was there to swat away the attempt. The ball went to Elin McCoy, but his would-be layup was erased by Hinds. Guy grabbed the loose ball and laid the ball in, and with the Sals ahead, 43-42, with 1:56 to go and the Colonials fans going crazy, the Sals called a timeout.
Thomas said the message was clear. “We’ve just got to trust each other. We’ve been trusting each other since day one. We lost to them the first time, and we just didn’t want that to happen again.”
Hinds came out of the timeout and scored on a put back, but Guy followed with his own second-chance bucket. Hynson came up huge one more time, draining a short jumper to once more extend the lead to three. William Penn called a timeout with 16 seconds to go, but the Colonials were unable to get a clean three-point attempt up. Thomas made a free throw with a second and change left on the clock to seal the victory, and the celebration began among the black-clad students, the families and alumni, and the players and coaches.
Trevisan said the key to holding on as Penn made its move was simple.
“We’ve been in this position before. Execute, make plays, make free throws, keep defending and rebounding. Pretty basic stuff,” he said.
He also credited the team’s schedule, which was among the state’s toughest. The Sals played several highly regarded regional programs, including both of the Philadelphia Catholic League finalists, Neumann-Goretti and Roman Catholic.
“A lot of people make a big deal about our early season schedule, and that’s what I always go back to,” he said.
Then in the state tournament, the Sals had to take on a talented Polytech team, defending champion Tower Hill, and the No. 1 seed, Middletown.
“This stretch we just went on, the tough side of the bracket, we did that three or four times already this season. So we were prepared. We were unfazed by that,” he said.
Hynson finished with 20 points, making 8 of 14 from the field, and Thomas added 14. The team made 13 of 15 free throw attempts, with one of the misses coming at the end of the game. The Sals finished with a record of 17-7, including 12 of their final 13 after losing to William Penn on Jan. 21.
For senior Brandon Baffone, the win was “bittersweet, for sure. This is my last high school game, but there’s not a better way to go out.” He was able to share the victory with his father, Brandon Sr., whose game-winning shot in the first-ever high school game at the Bob sent the Sals to the finals in 1993.
For the Colonials, Sample had 13, with eight of those coming in the first quarter. Guy had 12 points and 10 rebounds, and Vonhm also had a double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds. William Penn ended the season with a 16-8 mark.
All photos by Mike Lang.