by Tom Utescher
The halftime leader was ultimately the losing team in both of Chestnut Hill College’s home basketball games last week. The Griffins enjoyed a 35-31 advantage at the intermission on Tuesday night, then bowed to the visiting Golden Rams of West Chester University, 72-67. On Sunday afternoon CHC trailed the University of Bridgeport (Conn.) at the half, 30-23, but rallied in the second period to unhorse the Purple Knights, 70-69.
The home court split produced a season record of 5-2 for the Chestnut Hill squad, which was slated to play two more non-conference foes before hosting Holy Family University on December 6 in its Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference opener. The only loss besides the one to West Chester was a 102-74 setback against U.C. San Diego in the first installment of a three-game California foray that launched the Griffins’ season.
“That first game we were a little shell-shocked, and then in the West Chester game they stepped it up in the second half and we didn’t match their effort,” said CHC head coach Jesse Balcer, now in his ninth season. “When we’ve kept our heads and played as a team, we’ve been able to win. We’re young [there are two seniors on the roster and usually at least one freshman starter] and we’re going to make some mistakes, but the important thing is that we learn from them and keep on growing.”
Brandon Williams, a senior guard from Abington Friends School, passed the 1000-point mark in career scoring back on November 16, when the Griffins won their home opener over C.W. Post. Last Tuesday it was the turn of his classmate Dan Comas to break the barrier, as the all-conference forward started the West Chester contest with 995 points.
The points didn’t come easily for Comas on this occasion, but the Griffins erased an 0-4 deficit at the outset to go up 14-7 six minutes into the contest. The Golden Rams drew closer, but Jakeem Bogans, a sophomore guard out of now-defunct Cardinal Dougherty, came off the CHC bench to hit two driving lay-ups, a free throw, and a three pointer from the right wing.
Several times, the hosts had an eight-point advantage, and on one of these occasions they missed a lay-up that would’ve pushed the lead into double figures. With 1:10 to go in the opening half, Comas hit a lay-up that put the Griffins up 35-27 while also giving him 1001 points in his Chestnut Hill tenure.
After a brief ceremony to recognize the achievement, West Chester started the final minute with a driving lay-up and then scored off a steal to make it 35-31 for the halftime break. The visitors’ momentum carried over into the second stanza, as they finally pulled even at 39-all with two-and-a-half minutes gone.
The Golden Rams went ahead and then maintained a modest lead in the middle of the second half, but never were able to pull away. CHC tied it up at 55-all and then leveled the score for the final time at 60-60 with five-and-a-half minutes to go. Bogans tied it with two free throws stemming from a fourth personal foul on Carl Johnson, and at 5:17 an illegal pick sent WCU teammate Corey Blake off the floor with his fifth foul.
Lance McDowell stepped up for the visitors over the next three minutes, bagging two lay-ups and a short jumper, and throwing down a dunk in transition. With two minutes left the Griffins were down 68-63, and they couldn’t get closer than three points down the stretch.
McDowell set the standard for both points (24) and rebounds (nine) in the game. Comas came away with nine points and six boards, while the hosts received double-digit scoring from three guards: Bogans (16), Williams (12), and junior Mark DeRugeris (15.)
Balcer remarked, “Our goal was to force them to become a jump-shooting team, but they just pounded it inside on us.”
After Sunday’s successful outcome against Bridgeport, the CHC skipper pointed out, “We shot free throws much better than we did with West Chester, and another thing we did better was play defense for 40 minutes. They hurt us on the offensive boards early in the game, but I thought we did a much better job in the second half.”
For more than 11 minutes the Griffins essentially traded points with the Purple Knights, but with the host hosts ahead 17-16, Bridgeport had Darian David bank in a three-pointer, and teammate Omari Howard followed up with a jumper from the above the foul line. A free throw and a score off an offensive rebound made it a 8-0 run, and at the end of the half Chestnut Hill was still down by seven, 30-23.
After playing the somewhat larger West Chester, CHC had to try and match the rapid tempo of the Knights. They didn’t have great size but their quick hands and quick feet gave them extra opportunities on offense and helped them disrupt the Griffins’ offensive transition. The CHC guards eventually rose to the occasion, and several times in the second half a series of steals and re-steals had players sprawled around the court as if they were playing some kind of rugby match with a greased ball.
Bridgeport’s highwater mark came when a dunk by Howard made it 43-31 about five-and-a-half minutes into the second half. What the National Football League would deem “excessive celebration” on the play irked the Griffins.
“The bottom line,” said Balcer, “was we got down by 12 points and Dan Comas, our senior, just wanted the ball. We started giving it to him and it started paying dividends.”
A lay-up by the CHC forward and some subsequent free throws helped pare down the lead, and Comas grabbed some key rebounds, as well. Later, two three-point buckets by freshman point guard Luke Dickson took the visitors’ lead down to three points, and the Griffins were back in business.
Next, it was the turn of DeRugeris to make plays at both ends of the floor and get the Griffins over the hump and into the lead. With a little over six minutes to go, the junior hit a pair of free throws, then came back down the court and hoisted a lay-up. His shot was actually slapped off the glass by Bridgeport, which drew both a goaltending call and the Knights’ 10th team foul of the half. DeRugeris made the free throw for a 57-55 Chestnut Hill lead with 5:57 on the clock.
Both clubs had individuals in foul trouble, but the Griffins kept everybody in the game while the visitors had two players ejected. The Griffins made numerous trips to the foul line and Williams threw a “three” into the mix, helping the hosts attain a 67-61 lead as the one-minute mark approached.
The Knights weren’t done yet; senior guard William Harrison made two successful drives and bagged a free throw to boot, and suddenly it was a one-point game (67-66) with 17.2 seconds remaining. A few ticks later DeRugeris cashed in on a foul to make it 69-66, but at the other end the Griffins let Harrison’s hot hand heave a three-pointer from the right wing. That knotted the score at 69-all with 5.3 seconds on the board.
From the baseline Williams inbounded the ball to Bogans, who was fouled right away. His first free throw found nothing but rim, but his second dropped in off the iron to nudge the hosts ahead, 70-69. The Knights made one last journey down the court, but a shot from the right elbow by Hakeem Rodriguez missed the mark and the home crowd celebrated.
The Griffins had clicked on close to 90 percent of their free throws (28/32), and committed 16 turnovers to Bridgeport’s 20. Rebounds were close, 35 to 32 in favor of Chestnut Hill. Comas collected 15 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three steals, and Williams had 14 points, four boards, three steals, and two assists. Dickson (two assists, two steals) and DeRugeris contributed 13 points apiece for the winners.
Eion Lewis led Bridgeport with 17 points, while Rodriguez rang up 11 and Harrison and Howard each ended up with 10.
“Our guys play tough, and we gutted this one out today,” Balcer said. “We made the extra passes, we drew charges, and we hit the boards hard late in the game.”