In his first home-court appearance as a Griffin, CHC guard Ed McWade (right) motors past fellow freshman Kory Cooley of the University of the District of Columbia. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

In his first home-court appearance as a Griffin, CHC guard Ed McWade (right) motors past fellow freshman Kory Cooley of the University of the District of Columbia. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

When a basketball team starts its season with four consecutive losses, any win is welcome, no matter what form it takes. For the men of Chestnut Hill College, it looked as though that first “W” might come surprisingly easily, as the Griffins seized a lead and raised it well up into double digits during the middle minutes of last Saturday’s home opener.

However, the visiting Firebirds of the University of the District of Columbia, also winless coming into the contest (and 0-6 afterwards), dragged themselves back into contention and forced the bout into overtime at 86-all. The ballclubs continued racing neck-and-neck throughout the five-minute OT before CHC finally emerged victorious, 99-97.

“In the end, the only thing that matters is that we found a way to win,” said 12th-year Griffins head coach Jesse Balcer, whose squad led the out-of-conference contest as many as 19 points in the first half and 17 points in the second. “This is literally the way we’ve played every game so far. Every time it’s been two points, four points, last possession, but today we pulled it out.”

CHC played without tri-captain Noel Hightower, who was on bereavement leave, and before the season even began the Griffins learned that another junior guard, Dexter Harris, would be out for the year.

“Every team’s got problems to overcome, and you just have to figure it out,” Balcer observed. “Today we did that, and I’m happy for these guys.”

Filip Sekulic, a senior forward and a tri-captain along with Hightower and front-court classmate Seamus Radtke, scored the game’s final field goal from under the basket with 36 seconds left. That nudged CHC ahead, 97-95, but with 14.4 ticks on the clock, Masner Beauplan converted two foul shots to even it up for UDC.

Both teams had been in the double bonus since the second half of regulation play, so a blocking foul by the Firebirds against Griffins’ guard Christian Walck sent the senior to the stripe for a pair of free throws. With 5.5 seconds showing, he stuck both shots for a 99-97 lead, and the visitors were not able to find the cylinder on their last desperate drive.

Sekulic led the winners in scoring with 19 points, while recording the game high in both rebounds (11) and blocks (two). Radtke had 16 points and five rebounds, Walck had 11 points, six rebounds, and four assists, and junior guard Luke Dickson also posted 11 points and four assists while corralling five rebounds.

Balcer was quick to point out, “Our young guys stepped it up, too. Ed McWade (a freshman) and Billy Cassidy (sophomore) gave us more than 30 points between them, and Demetrius Isaac (freshman) came off the bench and was really solid for us.”

McWade and Cassidy netted 18 and 17 points, respectively, Isaac, who saw most of his minutes late in the game, had four points and three assists.

Cassidy comes from Friends Central and Isaac is fresh out of Penn Charter, and they’re not the only links the Griffins have to independent school programs familiar to Northwest Philly fans.

Balcer himself played ball at Abington Friends before moving on to Philadelphia University. Two of his former players who are now assistant coaches at CHC are Julian McFadden, a graduate of the old Chestnut Hill Academy, and Brandon Williams, who hails from Abington Friends. A guard on the current roster, Sean Dougherty, is a junior who played for La Salle High School.

Last Saturday, Abington Friends was also represented on the visiting side; former Kangaroo Thomas Robinson is a freshman forward at UDC.

The numbers on the scoreboard turned over slowly at first, and after seven minutes Chestnut Hill held a modest lead, 8-7. Cassidy then nailed a three-pointer from the top of the key, and it would be the first of four treys for the sophomore in six-and-a-half minutes. Over a shorter timespan, it would spring the Griffins loose on an 11-0 run.

In all, after their one-point edge at 8-7, the hosts outscored the Firebirds 28-10 over the course of nine minutes. Radtke followed in the rebound of his own shot to make it 36-17 with around three-and-a-half minutes to go in the first period. The 19-point bulge would be the largest advantage attained by Chestnut Hill, which still led by 15 at the intermission, 44-29. Cassidy came off the court with 14 points and Radtke and McWade each put up nine in the first 20 minutes.

With a strong start at the resumption of the action, the Griffins opened the gap back up to 17 points over the first two minutes. The Firebirds began making little runs, but for quite awhile CHC was able to respond well enough to keep its lead in low double-figures.

“I never felt comfortable,” admitted the Griffins’ Balcer. “In two other games, we blew 14-point leads in the second half. When it starts to get close, we kind of lose our focus and get a little bit nervous. Getting over that is just something you have to learn by doing it out on the court.”

Midway through the period, a tip-in by Radtke made it 69-55, but a little over five minutes later, UDC had gotten back within four points, 74-70.

Firebirds freshman Kory Cooley hit a three-pointer and went four-for-four at the foul line during this surge, and was on his way to a new career scoring mark. He would ring up 23 of his game-high 28 points during the second half.

The Griffins levered the lead back out to nine points several times, but the visitors kept coming, and they finally pulled even at 82-all on a three-pointer by sophomore Reggie Sidbury with 50 seconds to go. After the score seesawed to 84-84, Chestnut Hill went ahead when Radtke came in along the left baseline and crossed beneath the hoop for a reverse lay-up.

UDC missed a field goal attempt to tie it, but senior Michael Terry was fouled when he came down with the offensive rebound. His two successful foul shots with 10 seconds remaining would send the bout into overtime.

In the middle of the five-minute extra session, CHC held a 91-87 edge after McWade used a spin move to free himself for a lay-up. However, a UDC lay-up and followed by a triple for Terry gave the Firebirds their only lead in OT, 92-91. Later, the teams were tied at 95-all when Terry scored his final two points of the afternoon (of 24 total) from the charity stripe with just under a minute to go.

Dribbling down to the baseline on the left side, CHC’s Walck slipped a pass inside to set up a lay-up by Sekulic, and the Griffins led 97-95 when the visitors called time-out with 30.5 seconds on the clock. UDC had seen four of its players foul out of the game (CHC lost Radtke in this manner early in overtime), but the Firebirds kept finding athletes to make plays. Beauplan, a reserve guard, drew a foul and tied the contest from the free throw line, but with five ticks left Walck had the last word for CHC, making two foul shots of his own to clinch the victory.

With a win now on the books, Balcer was asked about the positive qualities the team has displayed thus far in the young season.

“We play together and we’re unselfish – we had six guys in double figures today,” he remarked. “This game wasn’t the best example, but for the most part we play good defense. We do things as a team. When we screw up, we screw up together – which isn’t great – but when we’re looking good, the ball’s hopping and we’re getting shots.”