by Tom Utescher
For the men’s basketball team at Chestnut Hill College, it was a stab to the heart three nights before Valentine’s Day.
Entering last Tuesday’s Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference match-up, the visiting Philadelphia University Rams owned a 12-2 record in conference play while CHC was just 5-9, but the Griffins rallied from a 20-point deficit late in the first half to take a 78-77 lead with five seconds to play. At the last instant, the home fans’ party was transformed into a wake as the visitors took the floor following a time-out and won the contest on a buzzer-beater.
The shot from just below the top of the key (and a step to the right) was launched by sophomore forward Derek Johnson, and his ball entered the cylinder as the red lights framing the backboard flashed on, indicating that time had expired.
Unlike Chestnut Hill (7-15 overall), most teams that fall 20 points behind the Rams (19-5) are unable to come back and make a game of it.
“Our guys have a lot of pride and they did exactly what I knew we could do,” said Griffins head coach Jesse Balcer, who once played for legendary Philly U. mentor Herb Magee. “We waited just a little bit too long to start coming back. One thing I was really proud of was the way we just continued to battle. There’s a lot you can take away from that, but right now, it just hurts.”
In the initial stage of the encounter, Jakeem Bogans and Taylor Trevisan each netted a three-pointer for Chestnut Hill and the Rams’ Nick Schlitzer sank a pair of treys as the teams seesawed up to 12-12. Starting a little over seven minutes in, the Rams broke free with an 8-0 spree that included a transition lay-up and a three-pointer by Johnson. After that, the visitors pulled away steadily, as Schlitzter canned two more triples and Johnson and senior Nick Christian each struck once from the bonus loop.
The fourth long-ball by Schlitzer made it 45-25 with 3:54 left in the half, and if CHC had not responded well here, the game could’ve been over before the break. Instead, CHC closed the period with a 9-2 rally that featured lay-ups by Bogans and senior center Seamus Radtke, a pair of free throws by Bogans, and then a three-pointer from the right wing fired by freshman Billy Cassidy with three seconds on the clock.
The hosts were still down by 13 at the interlude (47-34), but that was definitely better than 20 or more.
By the midway point of the second period, CHC had cut its deficit just about in half, now trailing 61-54. A little later, the Griffins were down half-a-dozen when junior guard Christian Walck and Cassidy tossed in back-to-back three-pointers to knot the score at 63-all.
“We wanted to dial up our defense and make sure that we’d used up every bit of our energy by the end of the game,” Balcer said. “We started to pick them up sooner and defend the length of the floor and try to force them to make some mistakes, and it worked. That had been the game plan going in, and we just didn’t execute it well in the first half.”
Following another tie at 66-66, Philly U. forged ahead, but never led by more than a basket or two. One of the Rams’ starters, Christian, fouled out with just under six minutes to go, and with 1:42 on the clock starting forward Peter Alexis committed his fifth personal. That infraction sent CHC’s Radtke to the line to make one of two free throws, and the home team was now just three points back, 75-72.
Walck forced a Philly U. turnover and fed the ball ahead to Bogans for a breakaway bucket, then the visitors recouped the two points as Johnson put in two free throws with 42 seconds left. A driving Walck couldn’t get a lay-up to go down, but freshman Carson Murphy was there to convert off the rebound, making it a one-point game again (77-76) with 25 ticks now left to play.
After a Griffins time-out, the Rams’ T.J. Huggins missed the front end of a one-and-one. At the other end CHC missed two shots from the paint, but from the left side of the rim Radtke followed the second ball back in to move the home team ahead.
Calling time-out with 4.4 seconds showing, Philly U. came back out and was able to get the ball to Johnson above the foul line. He had no time to do anything but immediately leap up and release a shot. The ball dropped through, and the Rams survived.
“Philly U. has so many different guys who can step up for them,” CHC’s Balcer noted. “Derek Johnson’s a terrific player and he made a great shot.”
Johnson grabbed seven rebounds and came away with 21 points, two fewer than Schlitzer, who made five three-pointers and delivered six assists. Christian scored 11 points and Huggins had 10 for the victors.
Walck (seven rebounds, seven assists, three steals) and Radtke shared a team-high 14 points for Chestnut Hill, which received 11 from Bogans and 10 from Trevisan.
“Part of our problem this year is that we play the way we should in one half,” the Griffins’ Balcer summed up. “Tonight it was the second half, and it wasn’t quite enough.”