Suspensions threaten St. Francis' dream season
By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Timing is everything in sports.
The St. Francis Brooklyn men's basketball team, for many years an afterthought on the local collegiate hoops scene, appears on the verge of a breakthrough season.
Their upperclassmen, Jalen Cannon, Brent Jones and Ben Mockford, are in full bloom and hitting their stride on both ends of the hardwood.
The Terriers' sensational freshman duo of Wayne Martin and Sheldon Hagigal are both emerging as candidates for NEC All-Rookie honors.
And perhaps most impressively, St. Francis is beginning to steal some of the thunder from its neighborhood rivals at LIU-Brooklyn, having bested the three-time defending Northeast Conference champion Blackbirds for the first time in seven "Battle of Brooklyn" meetings with a 78-64 triumph at the Pope Center last month.
Riding a three-game winning streak into last Saturday night's showdown with NEC-leading Robert Morris on Remsen Street, all signs pointed to this finally being the Terriers' time to rise to the upper ranks of the league and perhaps even challenge for their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance this coming March.
And then, suddenly, it didn't appear so.
After announcing that four of their players were suspended indefinitely in what the Franciscan College continues to refer to as a "school matter", the Terriers were whomped, 72-50, by the first-place Colonials on Saturday night as Jones, Martin, sophomore Anthony White and junior P.J. Santavenere were banned from participating.
Though the school remains steadfast in its discretion regarding the length of the suspensions and the reasons behind them, the Terriers (15-10 overall, 6-4 NEC) are now confronted with the possibility that they may play their final six NEC games, and perhaps the league's annual championship tournament, without these four players.
On Thursday night, St. Francis will welcome Central Connecticut State (3-7 NEC) to the Pope Center, but come Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m., they will be at the Barclays Center for their second major tete-a-tete with the rival Blackbirds.
UPDATE- Due to the upcoming snowstorm, Thursday's game against Central Connecticut State is being moved to Feb. 18 but they are still scheduled to play LIU on Sunday.
For third-year coach Glenn Braica, who has slowly built this program into a legitimate NEC title contender, the suspensions of these players couldn't have come at a worse time.
Especially with the Terriers in a three-way deadlock for third place in the conference with a home tournament game in the first round on the line if they slip any further back over the final six regular-season contests.
"It's a school matter and I can't comment on it," Braica said Saturday night following the Terriers' blowout loss to the Colonials. "I hope that they'll be back shortly. It's out of our hands, but we know the right thing will be done."
The Eagle contacted the SFC Athletics and Media Relations Departments on Wednesday, but was told the matter was still "being investigated" with no immediate timetable available for the length of the suspensions, which remain indefinite.
And so, suddenly, are the Terriers' championship aspirations.
Jones, emerging as the second-best point guard in the conference this year, and Martin, who provided the Terriers with game-winning baskets on three occasions during his first season here after starring at South Shore High School, were key pieces to St. Francis' diagram for success over the next several weeks.
"Sometimes it puts guys in different roles, basketball-wise," Braica admitted when asked what immediate effect the suspensions would have on his team. "We're hoping they'll be back for the next game, but I really don't know,"
Blackbirds coach Jack Perri faced a similar dilemma last season when four of his players were suspended for their part in an on-campus brawl that cost them a pair of NEC games apiece.
However, those suspensions were doled out prior to the commencement of the campaign, and the Blackbirds recovered in plenty of time to grab their third consecutive NEC title and yet another trip to the NCAAs.
St. Francis' situation comes just as the Terriers are peaking and poised for a serious run at something that has avoided them since they joined Division I more than a half century ago.
The timing, as I mentioned earlier, couldn't have been worse.
Now, the key questions remaining are:
Why were these players suspended?
How long will they be away from the team?
How will the Terriers respond to playing shorthanded for the remainder of the season if they don't return?
A season of great hope and promise has suddenly been complicated by matters having little, or perhaps nothing, at all, to do with basketball.
That, in and of itself, is a crying shame for St. Francis College, coach Braica and Terriers fans who have waited and waited and waited some more for a chance to celebrate March Madness in Downtown Brooklyn.
Of course, all the news coming out of Remsen Street isn't bad these days.
The St. Francis women's team made some history on Monday night in Loretto, Pa., equaling the all-time program record for victories in a season with a 90-76 win over St. Francis (Pa.).
The 1975-76 Terriers, coached by St. Francis College Hall of Famer Dianne Nolan, set the program mark with a 16-10 record.
The modern-day Terriers improved to 16-7, including 7-5 in the NEC, with their latest win and can set a new standard on Saturday, when they travel to Staten Island to take on NEC rival Wagner.
Junior guard Eilidh Simpson, a candidate for NEC Player of the Year honors, scored a career-high 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting Monday night as the Terriers snapped the Red Flash's seven-game winning streak.
St. Francis also climbed within a game of St. Francis U and Mount St. Mary's for second place in the NEC standings.
Over at LIU, the struggling Blackbirds men’s team is suddenly on the outside looking in at a spot in the NEC Tournament following last Saturday's 74-58 defeat at the hands of St. Francis (Pa.).
Sophomore E.J. Reed scored 20 points and ripped down 10 rebounds, but the Blackbirds (7-16, 2-8) went 0-for-10 from 3-point range over the final 20 minutes en route to their season high-tying four consecutive defeat.
LIU, which is shooting for an unprecedented fourth straight NEC title, will try to snap its slide Thursday night at Sacred Heart (UPDATE- That game has also been postponed, with no makeup date yet announced) before hosting the Terriers at the Barclays Center on Sunday afternoon in a game that will be televised by the MSG Network.
The Blackbirds are one game behind CCSU for the eighth and final NEC Tournament spot.
The LIU women jumped back into the tournament race with a 59-48 win over CCSU in New Britain, Conn., on Monday as senior center Cleandra Roberts scored 26 points.
The Blackbirds (6-17, 4-8) seek their third win in four games Saturday at St. Francis (Pa.).
Sophomore Nicholas Grasso of St. Edmund's Prep posted career bests of 12 points and 18 rebounds Tuesday night as Brooklyn College extended its season-high winning streak to six games with a 66-61 victory over CCNY.
Junior guard Jamel Gist (Westinghouse) and sophomore Egzon Gjonbalaj (FDR) contributed 10 and 11 points, respectively, for the Bulldogs (11-12, 7-7 CUNYAC), who will try to make it seven wins in a row against York College at the West Quad Center on Saturday.
The BC women improved to 17-6 overall and 10-4 in CUNYAC action with Tuesday's 56-52 win over CCNY.
Senior guard Allison Donovan hit a pair of crucial 3-pointers down the stretch and Megan Campbell scored a game-high 22 points for the Bulldogs, who will also host York on Saturday.
“Allison was huge tonight," said BC head coach Alex Lang. "She's been shooting great in practice and we knew that she'd come up big for us in one of these games down the stretch. It was great to see her do it tonight."