Trying to decide which type of defense to play against the St. Joseph boys basketball team is like choosing which side of a double-sword you want to feel on your skin.
Whatever way you decide to go, you’re bound to get cut.
Bridgeport Central head coach Barry McLeod can certainly attest to that after choosing to guard the speedy Cadets with a man-to-man scheme during Thursday night’s FCIAC showdown in Trumbull.
While the defensive game plan did slow down St. Joseph’s 3-point shooters, giving the Hilltoppers every opportunity to pull out a victory, it also succeeded in opening up huge running lanes for junior Quincy McKnight.
That ended up costing the Hilltoppers dearly and McKnight sliced and diced his way to a career-high 31 points, lifting St. Joseph to a thrilling 85-81 victory over Central in a game that featured a blistering pace from start to finish at the Vito Montelli Gymnasium.
Central (11-4 overall, 11-4 FCIAC) made a huge commitment to stopping junior Jon Dzurenda and Jake Pelletier from lighting things up on the outside.
“They played man-to-man hard and took us away from the 3-point line,” said St. Joseph head coach Chris Watts, whose team improved to 15-1 overall and 13-1 in the FCIAC. “They forced us out almost to half-court.”
McKnight took full advantage of the open space, scoring 21 points over the first 12 minutes of the game with most of that coming on fast-break layups and smooth 1-on-1 moves in the lane. McKnight also brought the house down with a fast-break dunk off a length-of-the-court pass from Pelletier among his 14 first-quarter points.
“Once they pushed Jake and Jon out with their denial defense, the dribble lanes were so huge you could drive a Mack Truck through them,” Watts said.
Dzurenda still managed to do what he does best, scoring 20 points with three 3-pointers. Pelletier added 10 points and two more 3-pointers and junior forward Erick Langston added 13 points and 11 rebounds.
Balance like that is why the Cadets still have to be considered the favorite to win the FCIAC title.
“It works in our favor if they pack it in because we have shooters and it works in our favor if they try to deny us because we have guys who can go to the hoop,” Watts said. “Tonight, the way they played defense played right into Quincy’s hands.”
McKnight (nine rebounds, three assists) only missed on one shot in the first half, going 9-for-10 from the floor with one 3-pointer and a 2-for-2 effort from the foul line. He finished with nine rebounds and three assists as St. Joseph earned a measure of revenge after losing to Central in the first round of the FCIAC playoffs.
“That first half, that’s probably the best I’ve played so far in my career,” said McKnight, whose previous high of 27 came during last year’s Northeast Christmas Classic at Webster Bank Arena.
Central showed a world of guts, storming back after St. Joseph hit the Hilltoppers with one of their patented runs.
Central led 26-25 after the first quarter, but St. Joseph used a 19-2 run in the second, including two foul shots on a technical foul from the bench, to take a 47-32 lead and it looked like the game was going to turn into a rout.
Typically, when the Cadets put together an onslaught like that, opponents fold. Central did the opposite, countering with a 8-2 run at the end of the second quarter to get to within 47-40 before pulling to within a point twice in the final minutes of the fourth quarter.
St. Joseph just made all the right plays when it needed them the most, using a 5-0 run in the final minute to put the game away. If not, this one could have easily gone the other way.
“I’m as proud of a team in defeat, maybe even winning a state championship, as I’ve ever been,” McLeod said. “I told them, we’re not backing down. We’re down 10 or 13, we’re not going anywhere. We’re here for the duration. We might not win, but we’re not going anywhere.”
Central displayed all the ingredients of a team that could go very far in the postseason. Junior point guard Tyler Ancrum was spectacular, scoring 19 points with six assists and three rebounds. Bretox (23 points) was solid in the paint and sophomore forward Marcus Blackwell showed great versatility, connecting on two 3-pointers while getting in the lane for a total of 19 points.
While it failed to stop McKnight, the Hilltoppers were very energetic on defense, forcing enough turnovers to get themselves back in the game.
“We’re young, but we’re getting better,” McLeod said. “That’s the good sign. But every time we step on the court, I expect to win. I’m not surprised with the way we played. I expected us to play well.”
While the fast pace helped McKnight set a new personal best for points, it also wore him down a bit.
“I would say a couple of times in the third quarter I started losing my legs a little bit,” McKnight said. “I told coach Watts to take me out with about a minute left so I could get a little rest and I came back strong.”
With McKnight fading a bit offensively, the rest of the Cadets stepped up to bring home the victory. Central got to within 76-75 with just over a minute left in the fourth and had a great chance to take its first lead since the first half.
But the Hilltoppers missed on three straight putback attempts on the same possession and Langston finally stopped it with a defensive rebound. Langston ran down the court and gave the Cadets some breathing room with a putback to make it 78-75 with 1:15 left.
After two foul shots by Pelletier, the Hilltoppers got back to within one, 80-79, on a basket by Bretox off one of many fantastic passes by Ancrum on the night.
At that point, St. Joseph switched into a box-and-1 against Ancrum and that produced a steal and half court by Pelletier. The senior captain quickly found Dzurenda under the basket and he turned it into a 3-point play that made it 83-79.
“We weren’t going to go to it, but Jake called for it,” Watts said. “He was confident that he could guard Tyler. That was key for us right there.”
After a missed 3-pointer by Blackwell, McKnight came down the court and sealed the game with a fast-break slam dunk, his first points of the fourth quarter.
While Central showed great resolve to get back in the game, the Cadets showed even more to win it.
“I think this shows how much heart we have,” McKnight said. “That’s all we’ve been preaching all year, is that this team has heart. We won’t back down against anybody no matter what their name is or what their record is.”