NEWARK – For three quarters, Salesianum and St. Elizabeth battled through missed shots, turnovers and bad decisions, entering the final eight minutes in a 34-34 tie. The student section for top-seeded Salesianum was uncharacteristically quiet, while the supporters of the Vikings, who snuck into the tourney as the 24th and final seed, believed their team could pull yet another upset.
Senior Brandon Gautier tied the game at 36 with a layup, but Salesianum ran off six consecutive points and 15 of the next 19 to take control, defeating the Vikings, 58-49, in the last of four quarterfinal-round games Sunday evening at the Bob Carpenter Center. The win puts Salesianum into the tournament semifinals against fourth-seeded Concord Thursday night at approximately 8 p.m. at the Bob.
After Gautier's tying field goal, the Sals responded with layups by Matthew Sgro and Joe McCusker, and two free throws from Donte DiVincenzo. Mike Piekarski, who led the Vikings with 17 points in his final high school game, ended the run with a free throw, but the Sals went on the decisive 15-4 run, including a three-pointer by McCusker, the team's lone triple of the night. DiVincenzo picked up one of his five assists on the play on a no-look pass to McCusker. Salesianum hit nine of 12 free-throw attempts down the stretch.
The Sals (20-2) came in as prohibitive favorites but turned in perhaps their weakest performance of the season. They shot 42.6 percent from the field, but connected on just one of nine three-point attempts, were only 17 of 29 from the free-throw line, and committed 19 turnovers. It was a win that left coach Brendan Haley and his team breathing a sigh of relief.
“Give (St. Elizabeth) credit, certainly. I'm a little bit at a loss as to why we played so poorly,” Haley said.
The coach said his top players, DiVincenzo and forward Brian O'Neill, need to play better on Thursday “because the rest of the guys take their lead from them.”
DiVincenzo struggled all night, making just one field goal on eight attempts and scoring four points. He tied O'Neill with eight rebounds, but he committed five turnovers. Senior guard David Barone, who had 14 points, said St. Elizabeth always plays the Sals close because the teams know each other so well.
“They go to all of our games. They watch us play,” Barone said. “They know Donte's our best player, and they know if they can take him out of the game it's going to be a close one. And they did that.”
St. Elizabeth smelled an upset all night long. The Vikings took their biggest lead of the game, five points, at 12-7 on a transition layup by Malik Curry following a steal by Gautier. Salesianum was able to close that to a point before the quarter ended thanks to a free throw by O'Neill, followed by a steal and layup by O'Neill, who was fouled and converted the old-fashioned three-point play. In fact, O'Neill scored eight of his team's 11 points in the first.
The Vikings went cold in the second, scoring just six points, and they trailed by four at the half. St. Elizabeth came out strong after intermission, however, with Piekarski (eight points) and Money (six) helping them into that 34-34 tie.
The loss ended the Vikings' season at 10-13, but they have a bright future with Money and classmate Malik Curry leading the way. Money joined Piekarski in double figures with 15.
Besides Barone, three other Sals finished in double figures: O'Neill (17), McCusker (11) and Shane Clark (10).
Salesianum defeated Concord on Feb. 8 by a 50-33 score. Haley said he was impressed with how the Raiders came back vs. St. Mark's on Sunday. “(Concord) played a lot better than we did tonight. They showed a lot of guts because they had a lead and fell back. Their play has improved, so we're going to have to play better than we did earlier in the season against them.”
Tickets for the semifinals are $8 and available at diaa.ticketleap.com. One ticket is good for both games. The first semifinal, featuring No. 14 Cape Henlopen vs. No. 10 St. Georges, begins at 6:30 p.m.