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DiVincenzo steps up in fourth, leads Salesianum to first state basketball crown

Salesianum's Joe McCusker receives his medal. McCusker scored four points, but his impact was felt more on defense. The senior usually drew the toughest assignment.
Salesianum's Joe McCusker receives his medal. McCusker scored four points, but his impact was felt more on defense. The senior usually drew the toughest assignment.Mike Lang

NEWARK – When his team needed him most, Donte DiVincenzo rose to the occasion. In the end, Salesianum cut the nets down for the first time, winning the Delaware boys basketball championship with a 50-45 win over St. Georges Saturday afternoon at the Bob Carpenter Center.

The Sals jumped out to a 13-2 lead in the first five minutes, and the sellout crowd, which included hundreds of white-shirted Salesianum students and a sizable number of alumni, sensed something special. St. Georges, however, found its footing, and with a minute and a half to go in the third, the Hawks took their first lead. Salesianum rebounded for a one-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, but the Sals’ faithful needed more.

That’s when DiVincenzo stepped up. He hit the first basket of the fourth, a spot-up three-pointer from the left elbow. When the ball swished through the hoop, he turned and pumped his fist and let out a yell. Thirty seconds later, DiVincenzo took an outlet pass from Shane Clark, stopped at the three-point line directly in front of the basket, and let his shot go. The ball hit the rim, bounced high into the air, and came down through the twine. The back-to-back treys increased the lead to 39-32, and two Shane Clark free throws later, it looked like the top-seeded team in the state was going to pull away.

The Sals held a seven-point lead at 45-38 with 2:08 to go after a layup by senior Brian O’Neill. It was the team’s last field goal of the afternoon. After that, St. Georges began fouling Salesianum on every possession to stop the clock. The strategy nearly worked, as Salesianum hit just five of 14 free-throw attempts in the last two minutes, giving the Hawks hope. Salesianum converted a mere 14 of 34 from the charity stripe for the game.

St. Georges was within three points twice in the final minute, but the Sals hit just enough free throws to keep it a two-possession game. When the final horn sounded, the Sallies’ faithful felt a mix of relief and exhilaration. For the first time in six tries, a trip to the final ended with a win. It is the school’s 140th state title, but until Saturday, none had come in basketball.

Salesianum coach Brendan Haley said he felt pretty good heading into the fourth quarter despite having just a one-point lead.

“At the start of the fourth quarter, we said the fourth quarter’s been ours this whole tournament. It was again tonight,” he said.

There was no doubt who was going to lead the team down the stretch, the coach added. “We were going to put it in his hands no matter what was happening. When he has the ball, I have every confidence in the world that he’s going to do something with it.”

DiVincenzo scored 10 points in the fourth, finishing with 18 to lead the Sals. He said Haley had told him the team needed him to perform.

“In the second half, coach told me, ‘You’re the best player on the court. You need to take us to the championship,’ and that’s what I did,” he said.

O’Neill said DiVincenzo’s contributions cannot be overlooked.

“He played great down the stretch today, especially in the fourth quarter. He was a beast, and we needed him to be a beast. In the fourth quarter, the coach said we’re a more veteran group, and let’s take that to our advantage,” O’Neill said.

St. Georges received 19 points from sophomore sensation Lamar Hamrick, including a dunk off a steal in the fourth that brought the Hawks’ fans to their feet and the game to 41-36. The Sals knew they would have their hands full with Hamrick. The unenviable task of defending him went to Joe McCusker, who is no stranger to the toughest defensive assignments.

“It’s a great feeling that Mr. Haley has the confidence to put me out there on the best guy every time, but at the same time, our D is based off help,” McCusker said. “I know I can go out there and play him tight, and if he does beat me, my teammates are there to help me out. It’s all mental. You don’t have to worry about getting beat.”

Hamrick was joined in double figures by Darrall Mosley, who scored 12 off the bench. Mosley was key to the Hawks’ early comeback, going on a seven-point run on his own near the end of the first period. St. Georges, which won just four games last season, finished this one 21-4, with a Blue Hen Conference championship and an upset win over No. 2 Sanford earlier in the tournament.

The Sals ended the season 22-2 and undefeated against in-state competition. DiVincenzo finished with a double-double, leading the team with 11 rebounds. He and O’Neill had four blocked shots each. O’Neill ended his high school career with another solid performance, scoring 15.

O’Neill, who along with Matt Sgro earned championships in football as well as basketball this season, carried the championship trophy around the Bob Carpenter Center after the game, sharing it with the Salesianum students in the stands and everyone else. He said the impact of this state championship on the school is big.

“It’s definitely great for the entire Salesianum community. It’s something we’ve never done before. This is just a great way to finish out my high school sports in general. I wouldn’t want to do it with any other group of guys.”