by Tom Utescher

Confronted by Philadelphia University’s Nick Christian (#25), Chestnut Hill College junior Francis Ashe (left) dumps a pass inside to teammate Brandon Williams (#11, lower right). (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Last Tuesday the men’s basketball team at Chestnut Hill College advanced to the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference semifinals for the first time ever, defeating host Philadelphia University, 64-54.

The CACC playoffs include four teams each from the conference’s northern and southern divisions, and the Philly U. Rams and CHC Griffins had been seeded second and third in the south, respectively. With Tuesday’s outcome, Chestnut Hill moved on with a record of 8-9 in CACC action and 12-15 overall, while the Rams ended their season at 10-7, 15-12.

After losing at home to Philly U. in December, Chestnut Hill won on the road in a January rematch. In that game the Griffins were led by freshman Jakeem Bogans, and in last week’s playoff meeting, a second reserve guard stepped up to spearhead the charge.

Sticking five of six three-point shots, Uros “The Balkans Bomber” Kovacevic rang up a game-high 27 points. The junior transfer, originally from Kotor, Montenegro, also collected seven rebounds and a pair of steals for the winners.

In the low post, junior power forward Dan Comas is a constant for the Griffins. He scored fifteen points and pocketed three steals for Chestnut Hill, while pulling down five rebounds. Sophomore point guard Mark DiRugeris also reached double figures with an 11-point effort complemented by six boards. The Griffins got eight points from sophomore Francis Ashe, two from senior Brandon Williams, and one from freshman Khadim Ndiaye.

Talking about Kovacevic, Chestnut Hill coach Jesse Balcer related, “I think he gets real focused for big games like this. He’s struggled a little lately, because our team has had a major battle with that flu bug that’s been going around. For this game he said he was fine, and Mark DiRugeris, who was really sick at one point, looked much better tonight. Mark is a key to our team’s success because he does so many little things that really add up over the whole game; his ballhandling, his passing, his defense.”

Neither team could make a clean break in the first 20 minutes. The Rams led 11-7 early, but later it looked like the Griffins would hit halftime on a roll, up 26-19 with less than 90 seconds remaining. A lay-up by seven-foot center Temi Adebayo and a three-pointer by fellow junior Corey Francisco had Philly U. back within a deuce at the interlude, 26-24.

A transfer from St. Joseph’s University, Adebayo wasn’t quite as effective on defense as he might have been due to a tad of foul trouble.

“Dan Comas was super solid for us in the middle, and he helped get those two fouls on Adebayo early on,” CHC’s Balcer said. “Temi’s a huge part of their interior defense. I tried to get our guys to go straight at him and close to his body, so he couldn’t get his arms out. It didn’t work that great because he still got seven blocks, but he got some fouls, too.”

Comas led all scorers at halftime with 11 points, and the Rams’ Francisco had 10. Francisco had been a thorn in CHC’s side in earlier games this season, just as Rams guard Jimmy Connolly had been last year during his freshman season.

“Our goal was not only to stop Connolly, but also to slow down Francisco because he worried us,” revealed Balcer. “I think he’s a really underrated player who does a lot for that team, and if he gets going, they’ll follow his lead.”

Chestnut Hill restricted Francisco to five points in the second half, and Connolly to five points the entire game. Still, Philly U’s momentum from the end of the first half lasted a few minutes into the second period, when the hosts enjoyed their final lead of the evening, 29-28.

Then Chestnut Hill embarked on a 14-2 offensive with Kovacevic in the vanguard. He scored on a drive, lobbed a pair of three-pointers from the right corner, and then scooped up a loose ball and made good on the fast break. Two free throws by sophomore Ashe and a Comas basket off of a rebound made it 42-31 with a little over 13 minutes remaining, and the Rams never fully recovered.

With six-and-a-half minutes to go the Griffins had a 55-42 advantage, but over the new few minutes they put that lead in jeopardy, flinging up ill-chosen field goal attempts very early into the 35-second shot clock. This led to extra possessions for Philly U., which scored six consecutive points to get back in the hunt, now only down by seven with more than four minutes left to play.

But if the Griffins had opened the door, the Rams never really stepped through. On one possession they missed both a three-point attempt and a lay-up off the rebound, then CHC got into the double bonus and Kovacevic nailed two free throws to shore up the lead.

Later, Rams senior Chris Kuntz came off the bench to put in a pair of three-pointers and get his team within five of the leaders at 59-54, but by that time the game clock was down under 40 seconds. Kovacevic scored in transition, and Philly U. whiffed on two field goal attempts its next time down the floor. With 18.9 showing Rams sophomore guard Jimmy Connolly fouled out and DiRugeris made one of the resulting free throws. The CHC guard was fouled again with four seconds to go, and sank both shots to stick the final score on the board.

UPDATE – On Friday night the Griffins ended their season in the semifinal round of the conference tournament with an 82-80 loss to Bloomfield (NJ) College, the top seed in the CACC’s northern division.

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