CHC junior Latoya Laing (left) reacts to a love tap from Wilmington’s Candace DeShields. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Last Thursday night the two Chestnut Hill College basketball teams swept a twin bill at home for the second time in six days, but until the very end of the evening, it looked as though the Griffins might only come away with a split against visiting conference foe Wilmington University.

The CHC women got ahead early, fought off a second half rally by the Lady Wildcats, and came away with a relatively comfortable 54-42 victory. In contrast, the Griffin men took more than five minutes to net their first field goal, then trailed by 14 points with 11 minutes left in the game before grinding out a 69-67 win.

“We really just scratched and clawed,” said men’s mentor Jesse Balcer, whose squad woke up in time to attain a 17-8 overall record and a 10-3 mark in the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference. “That’s the type of game that can carry you in the playoffs, because now you know that you’re always in the game. I told my guys we were lucky to learn a lesson and still get a win. You’ve got to play hard against everybody, no matter what their record is or where they’re ranked.”

Wilmington went back down to Delaware at 5-8 in the CACC, and 9-13 overall. The Lady Wildcats were 0-12, 1-17, after cutting down a 33-15 halftime deficit to trail by five points with nine minutes remaining.

“We had a lapse there, but the way we responded is a credit to the girls, and shows that we’ve grown as a team,” said first-year CHC coach Laura Pruitt, who saw her club improve to 6-16 overall and 5-10 in conference competition. “Earlier in the season, when a team started to come back like that, we panicked, but tonight we called a time-out to settle down, and we regained our composure and finished it off.”

Two nights earlier, Pruitt’s team had lost its regular-season rematch with Philadelphia University by a 75-57 count, after losing at home by just six points the first time.

“We played with more of an attitude the first time; we’re certainly a much better team at home,” the coach commented. “This time we were out of sync on defense, which really kills us with the match-up zone we play. They also kicked our butts on the boards. In practice yesterday we just worked on getting up and down the court better, communicating, and also tightening things up on the offensive end.”

Following a 9-9 tie with almost nine minutes gone against Wilmington, senior forward Ebony Washington hit a short bank shot and a pair of free throws, and the Griffins got two more from the foul line from Marqesah Spicer. Another junior guard, Latoya Laing, came off the bench to stick back-to-back three-pointers, then lay-ups by freshman Lila Jones and sophomore Annie Farrow ended a six-minute, 16-2 surge for the home team.

Near the end of the half, the Wildcats were holding the ball for the last shot, but CHC freshman Tenisha Townsend-Mobbley picked their pocket and raced down for a lay-up at the buzzer, making it 33-15 at the break.

The visitors responded well to their locker room lecture, chipping away at the lead while the CHC players often tried to go solo on offense, with poor results.

The pivotal time-out Pruitt mentioned came with 9:36 left on the clock and the Wildcats back within five, 38-33. Townsend-Mobley restarted the hosts with a successful drive, and on the visitors’ sixth team foul, CHC senior Aiesha Smith converted two free throws. After an isolated lay-up by Wilmington, Chestnut Hill’s Washington and juniors Lindsay Alexander and Asha Jones all scored from the paint for a 48-35 tally with under six minutes to play.

The crisis had been handled effectively, and at the end Townsend-Mobley had 10 points to top a list of 11 different scorers for the Griffins. Six points apiece came from Alexander and Washington, who led the rebounding effort with 11 and nine boards, respectively.

In the initial stage of the nightcap, CHC made do with two free throws by senior power forward Dan Comas for more than five minutes, as Wilmington used a pair of three’s to take an 8-2 advantage. Junior guard Francis Ashe hit a lay-up on an inbounds play to give the Griffins their first field goal with 5:17 elapsed, but the Wildcats continued to hoist shots from well beyond the three-point line, where they went seven for 13 in the first half.

Down 39-23 at the intermission, CHC’s Balcer was concerned, but not surprised.

“They were locked in when the game started,” he remarked. “Before the game I was watching them warm up and they were ready to play, and I was watching us and we weren’t.”

The Griffins skipper hoped he could raise his team’s intensity for the last 20 minutes.

He related, “All year long we’ve had halves where we scored over 50 points, and we’ve had halves where we’ve held teams in the 20’s, so I told them that tonight we’d need both at the same time.”

Chestnut Hill scored 46 and gave up 28, just enough for a two-point win. The locals still trailed by 16 (47-31) five minutes into the second half.

“Take it one possession at a time,” Balcer advised his charges. “Don’t look for a 16-point play, because that can’t happen.”

At first, progress was indeed gradual. Down near the 11-minute mark, the Griffins had pared just two points off the lead, at 54-40. Comas, who sustained CHC in the first half with 11 points and seven rebounds, picked up his second and third personal fouls in little more than a minute. Even with foul problems and then a trip to the bench to treat a cut near one eye, he contributed six points during the Griffins’ stretch run.

Ashe repeatedly attacked the basket and picked either a lay-up or a free-throw opportunity much of the time, scoring 10 of his 14 points in the second half. Three-point baskets by senior Brandon Williams, sophomore Jakeem Bogans, and freshman Luke Dickson also figured into Chestnut Hill’s 38-20 push during the last 11 minutes.

As the clock ticked under two minutes, the Griffins were just half-a-dozen points away, down 67-61. Williams knocked down his trey from just to the left of the key-top, and Dickson cashed in on two fouls against him, culling all four available points to squeeze the hosts ahead, 68-67, with 1:04 to play.

Wilmington seemed to lose faith, turning the ball over several times and never scoring again. The tally on the board was still the same when the Wildcats called a time-out with 16 seconds left, then play resumed at midcourt. The visitors set up and CHC pressured the ball, and when James Pee bobbled the rock for an instant a few steps above the foul line, CHC junior Mark DiRugeris jabbed it loose and grabbed it.

Wilmington had to foul, and DiRugeris made the first of his two double-bonus freebies with 2.5 ticks on the meter. From its own baseline, Wilmington put a pass in the air that was picked off by Comas, and the game was over.

The senior post player owned the game-high in points (21), rebounds (12), and steals (five) while Ashe earned 14 points, six boards, and four assists. There were nine points apiece recorded for Dickson and DiRugeris, and eight for Williams.

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