(Devon Darrell runs the pick & roll for the Red Raiders in their win at Park)
Since the preseason, I've been talking about how competitive the Monsignor Martin Association large schools would be this year. There hasn't been a season in the last decade when the Class A private schools of WNY have occupied four of the top five spots among the top 10 large schools, or been so closely bunched together without a clear cut favorite. I've even labeled it the 'No nights off MMA' this year. Having watched Park play and defeat Timon, Canisius, and Williamsville South this season already, I can say with certainty that the Pioneers hosting St. Francis last night was pushed to the back burner by comparison. There was less fanfare, less media coverage, and less of a big-game feeling at the onset than the other three games came with. The game didn't even sell out, unlike Park's last two home games. So on a night when the local scene was void of any other marquee matchups, for anyone who missed what went down on Harlem Road, you blew it. Not only was it a big game...it was the biggest result we've had this season and also happened to be the most entertaining and exciting!
Trailing by 21 points in the first half, St. Francis rallied to force overtime, force it again, and then sent shock waves throughout WNY with a 70-66 double overtime victory against NYS Class A #1 Park. The Red Raiders now sit in a three-way tie for first place in the Monsignor Martin Association Class A standings with Park and Timon.
"It was wild," St. Francis coach Brian Ferris said.
Park got off to a good start and took a 13-6 lead less than five minutes into the game. After closing the opening quarter with a 7-0 run, Frannies made it 16-13 heading into the second frame and looked to be settling in. With five minutes left before halftime, it was a 20-18 score favoring the Pioneers. Just three minutes later, they had pressured the Red Raiders and converted some turnovers & misses into fast points with a 15-0 run to take a commanding 35-18 lead. Joe Jones got it going in the post for the Pioneers and scored 10 of his 15 points in the stanza, while his team built a 41-20 lead just before halftime.
"We started playing into what they want," said Ferris. "They want to get you rushed, they want to get you pressured, they want to get out in transition."
Those minutes before intermission were impressive on Park's end. They had once again looked like a dominant force with elite talents coming together to make the game of basketball look easy. But the Red Raiders were about to come together as well, and show how cohesion can make the game of basketball look inspirational.
"We challenged these guys to play our kind of basketball and not to be intimidated and they just responded," Ferris said.
When he said "they" responded, he literally meant everyone. The term 'total team win' gets thrown around often, and the St. Francis win at Park was the epitome of that. Every Red Raider who took the floor last night made a contribution to the outcome, as they banded together to win with outstanding ball movement, passionate defense, sharp shooting, and a united will to win.
"We settled down at halftime, our coaches settled ourselves down, and we just said let's go back to the way we played in the first quarter and then battle your butt off," Ferris said.
The comeback began the way they all do - at the defensive end. St. Francis allowed just five points in the third quarter on a pair of field goals from Dan Scott. After his first, the Red Raiders strung together a 12-0 run to cut the deficit to 43-36. When Park went back up by 10 on Scott's second score, a trey, Frannies rattled off another eight straight points to close the third that included perimeter bombs from Julian Cunningham & Dorian Ivey. What had been a 41-22 game at halftime, was now a 46-44 thriller heading into the fourth quarter.
"We've got a great team just like them," Cunningham said. "Just playing really good defense and rebounding the ball made a big difference."
The Pioneers nabbed the first six points of the fourth frame, going back up by eight points, 52-44. It seemed like they'd just flipped a switch and decided to put the game away. But St. Francis was still accepting challenges and was happy to flip that Park switch right back to the off position. A 10-0 run that spanned nearly the last five minutes of the fourth quarter was capped by a 3-pointer from junior guard Devon Darrell in the final minute - good for the Red Raiders' first lead of the game. With 31 seconds left, Jones hit from the baseline for Park to tie the game at 54-54 and it was off to overtime.
"I played on JV last season, so I've never had this feeling with a crowd like this," Darrell said. "Now that I'm playing varsity and starting and playing big teams, it's a great feeling."
Darrell scored the first bucket of overtime to give St. Francis its second lead of the game. Jones answered with a three-point play for Park to make it 57-56. After a pair of free throws by Frannies, Scott knocked down a 3-pointer to give the Pioneers a two-point lead at 60-58 with 1:30 left in OT. On the next possession, Connor Cummings came up with a big basket in the paint to tie the game at 60 apiece. Both teams had scoreless possessions that followed and another four minutes went up on the clock. Double overtime!
Bo Sireika knocked down a 3-pointer from straight away in the opening minute of the second OT session to give St. Francis its first three-point lead of the contest, 63-60. A basket from Sean Taggart followed a minute later to make it 65-60, before Cunningham made it a six-point game with a free throw after a stop. The Red Raiders were able to milk the clock for the remainder and wait for the clock to officially reach all zeros, before celebrating the massive accomplishment.
"It feels really great because everyone doubted us and thought they would blow us out," said Cunningham. "We came in for a dog fight and just kept going at them."
Cunningham scored a game-high 18 points in the win, but his point total was just part of a magnificent performance from a sophomore point guard playing at a state powerhouse. He added 10 rebounds, three assists, three steals, knocked down three 3-pointers, and never turned the ball over in four quarters & two overtime sessions. Sireika finished with 14 points, four rebounds, three assists, and had the big '3' to start the second overtime. Devon Darrell also netted 14 points, along with three assists and the trey that ultimately forced the first overtime. Roburt Welch had an all-around game with six points, four boards, three steals, and two blocks.
My choice for unsung hero of the game goes to Cummings. The senior came off the bench for the Red Raiders to score nine points and grab eight rebounds. His five points in the second quarter were crucial when the Frannies' offense was stagnant, he made timely plays for his team all game, and made a great play to score and help force the second overtime.
"Timely baskets and battling for rebounds with kids a foot taller than him," Ferris of Cummings. "The kid just gives his all for us - it's hard to keep him off the floor."
Brandon Smith scored a team-high 18 points for Park. Scott finished with 17 points, Jones had 15 points, and Noah Hutchins added 12 points in the loss.
"I think in the second half, we got a little selfish and stopped sharing the ball," said Park coach Michael Battaglia. "But I think the game had as much to do with what they did right...that's a really good team and this game was taken away from us by St. Francis."
The Red Raiders host St. Joe's on Friday night, while Park welcomes CCA to town on Saturday. Both teams would be wise to remember they play in the Monsignor Martin Association and there are no nights off!
St. Francis 13 - 9 - 22 - 10 - 6 - 10 = 70
Park 16 - 25 - 5 - 8 - 6 - 6 = 66
St. Francis: Julian Cunningham 18, Bo Sireika 14, Devon Darrell 14, Connor Cummings 9, Roburt Welch 6, Dorian Ivey 5, Sean Taggart 4
Park: Brandon Smith 18, Dan Scott 17, Joe Jones 15, Noah Hutchins 12, Quentin Nnagbo 2, Marques Lowe 2