St. Francis CYO Hoops Squad Nearly Pulls Off Big Win in State Playoffs
A 2-4 start to the season could have become a disaster by the end of it. But head coach Brian Muldowney’s St. Francis CYO basketball team wasn’t one that possessed players who had an oh-well attitude, so they battled back – straight to the state playoffs.
“I’m sad this season’s over,” said Muldowney, after his crew had its season ended with a 61-55 semifinals loss to defending state champion Our Lady of Fatima of Perth Amboy on March 9 at St. Francis Community Center. “Our team caught fire later in the season, and it was such a pleasure to coach this team because they didn’t quit on themselves or each other.”
And two minutes into the contest, it was clear the St. Francis crew wasn’t going to make things easy for its opponent. In fact, Our Lady of Fatima, which has won the state title the past four years, wasn’t in the clear until a minute remained on the clock.
“These kids played their hearts out tonight,” Muldowney said. “We had a playoff atmosphere here. Our guys went up against a team that has been at the top for years, and they almost pulled it off. I couldn’t be more proud of our team.”
After a slow start for both teams – the game was scoreless 1:52 into it – St. Francis grabbed the early lead when Ron Henefer buried a three-pointer from the right side. But Our Lady of Fatima bounced back and took the lead, 7-4, with 2:29 left in the first quarter. Henefer tied the contest 13 seconds later with another three-pointer, but Our Lady of Fatima went on a 9-4 run to close out the quarter to take a 16-11 lead.
Our Lady of Fatima pushed the lead to nine, 21-12, with 5:15 left in the first half, but a pair of backdoor layups from Denis Osborn and a foul shot from Dallas Widmer trimmed the gap to four halfway through the quarter. The lead remained four, 29-25, by halftime.
Coming out of the half, St. Francis pushed its game into another gear, going on an 8-2 run during the first 4:46, culminated by an Osborn putback, to regain the lead, 33-31. The lead changed hands a few more times during the next two minutes, but back-to-back layups by Osborn and Ethan Leming, along with another layup and foul shot from Osborn, sent St. Francis ahead, 41-39, heading into the final quarter.
With 1:03 gone by in the fourth, Henefer drilled another trey to make it a five-point contest, 44-39, but Our Lady of Fatima surged back into the lead with a 6-0 spurt. With 4:39 to go, a pair of free throws from Henefer knotted the game at 48-48. Unfortunately, Our Lady of Fatima went on a 13-7 run to finish off St. Francis.
Osborn finished with 23 points, while Henefer finished with 13 and Leming, Nick Guglielmo and Liam Anderson ended up with seven, six and five points, respectively.
“Our Lady of Fatima is an incredible team,” Muldowney said. “They’re very athletic, and they just wear you down. We just didn’t have enough in the tank. But our kids played great, and I couldn’t have asked for anything more than they gave us tonight.”
Following its 2-4 start, St. Francis went 8-2 during its last 10 regular-season games, before capturing the Ocean County championship with a win over St. Mary’s of Barnegat. From there, St. Francis and St. Mary’s entered the state playoffs – the top two teams from Ocean, Monmouth, Burlington and Middlesex counties earned spots this year – and while St. Mary’s lost its opening-round contest earlier last week, St. Francis knocked off Holy Cross of Rumson, 50-35, to advance to the semis.
Against Holy Cross, St. Francis was up 18-17 at the half before stepping on the gas pedal. It was the first state tournament victory for St. Francis during the past 10 seasons. Leming led the scoring with 18 points, while Guglielmo and Osborn each hit for 13.
With Dan Steadman, Robbie Engel and Hank Foster as assistant coaches, the rest of the team included Luke Searles, Gregory Schiano, Sean Gerhard, Casey Lepeshko and Shane Heck.
“We graduated seven players last year,” Muldowney said. “And this team needed a little time to grow together, get accustomed to each other. A few days after that 2-4 start, we had a practice and something just clicked. They played great for the next 10 games and then won the county championship. These guys worked really hard and did everything we asked of them. We really had a great season, and I’m very happy with the way it turned out.”
— David Biggy