Top-seeded Cadets conquer state's top-ranked team
Clutch free throw shooting, a key fourth-quarter run and another huge game from its smallest player.
St. Joseph used all of that and more to earn a return trip to Mohegan Sun Arena, taking the best shot the state's No. 1-ranked boys basketball team had to offer before pulling away for a 69-59 victory over New London in front of a packed house at the Floyd Little Athletic Center in New Haven Wednesday night.
The top-seeded Cadets (24-1) built a 29-19 halftime lead, but the CIAC Class LL semifinal showdown was everything it was hyped to be in the second half.
Led by Providence-bound All-American Kris Dunn, who scored 12 of his 18 points in the third quarter, the Whalers (23-3) pulled even on four different occasions in the second half.
But they never could take the lead as defending LL champion St. Joe's showed its mettle, going on a 7-0 run to take a 49-42 lead with 5:05 remaining.
The Cadets would never look back, sinking one big free throw after another down the stretch to earn a spot in the Class LL title game on Saturday at 6:15 p.m. The last obstacle in the way of St. Joe's second straight state championship and 11th overall is No. 2 seed Hillhouse, which knocked off Fairfield Prep 60-47 in the other semifinal contest.
Showing off his lightning quick first step and playing like he had ice water in his veins, senior point guard James Jennings poured in a game-high 30 points. Jennings connected on four 3-pointers, with his final trey of the night igniting the Cadets' early fourth-quarter run.
"We didn't want it to be our last night and we were determined to come out and get the win," the 5-foot-8 Jennings said.
Jennings' performance left quite an impression on both coaches.
"I've been quoted saying if there's a point guard -- a true point guard -- better than James, I don't see one in the state and I believe that," St. Joseph coach Vito Montelli said. "I'm not just being loyal to my players. It'd take a hell of a guy to be better than he is."
Towson-bound senior Timajh Parker finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds for the Cadets, who went 21 of 22 at the foul line. Parker, a much-improved free throw shooter from last season, was 10 of 10 from the charity stripe in the fourth quarter.
"It's something I worked on a lot in the off-season," Parker said. ""It means a lot to get back, but it means a lot more to go back up there and win it. James has the ultimate confidence in himself. He's a leader and he led us tonight."
Senior Pat Hopkins totaled 11 points -- including a a dunk in the final minute to put an exclamation point on St. Joe's second victory of the season over New London. The Cadets defeated the Whalers 57-52 in the Northeast Christmas Classic in late December, and this victory ended the 2011 Class L champion's 20-game winning streak.
New London survived a double-overtime thriller against Windsor in the quarterfinals, and it showed early on.
"At the beginning of the game I don't think we were into it mentally, maybe that had some effect from Monday, but you just never know," coach Craig Parker said.
New London's Doug Henton finished with five 3-pointers en route to 17 points, while Keith Porter added 13.
Sophomore Quincy McKnight had eight points for St. Joe's, which will play in the state finals for the 17th time under Montelli, who is currently inhis 50th year as the Cadets coach.