A year can make a huge difference in high school basketball.
Howard thrilled its fans by winning the DIAA boys state championship last spring. But the Wildcats lost almost all of that team to graduation, and an experienced Salesianum team took advantage on Saturday night for a 60-41 victory in the season opener for both teams.
“We’re starting two freshmen right out of the gate as our next couple of guys that we want to prove,” Howard coach Chris DiMascio said. “One thing about Howard, we live and die by the 3. We died tonight by the 3.”
The Wildcats were 0 for 15 from 3-point range. It was likely to be a tough night anyway, as Sallies returns most of the lineup from a 19-4 team that reached the state semifinals.
Junior guard Donte DiVincenzo glided his way to 24 points for the Sals, but the major-college prospect wasn’t pleased with his effort.
“We made mistakes early, but that’s going to happen first game of the season,” DiVincenzo said. “We’ve got a couple of new guys who had the jitters in the first game.
“I didn’t play well personally, I think. But coach [Brendan] Haley gave us the freedom to work through our mistakes, and everybody else around me stepped up.”
Sallies was playing without 6-foot-7 senior Brian O’Neill, who was making his official visit to Pittsburgh, where he is being recruited as a tight end. But another skyscraper, 6-9 senior J.T. Harrar, came through with 10 points and seven rebounds.
“J.T. was very effective for us,” Haley said. “He was huge, and we weren’t really getting him to touch it enough. We shot too many 3s in the first half, and that kind of triggered their break, their transition.”
Salesianum got off to a hot start, building a 10-2 lead on layups by Harrar and DiVincenzo, two layups from Joe McCusker and a beautiful give-and-go feed from Harrar to Shane Clark.
The Sals led 18-11 at the end of the first quarter and 29-19 at the half. Sallies got better results by slowing down and concentrating on the inside game in the third quarter, leading to a 19-4 run. DiVincenzo started it by thrilling the crowd with a dunk in traffic. Matt Sgro finished it with a fast-break layup to push the lead to 48-23.
“I think it was a lot of normal first-game stuff where we’re playing too fast offensively,” Haley said. “We wanted to kind of work inside out a little bit more than what we did.”
The Wildcats started three juniors and two freshmen, so their best is likely yet to come. Howard got 16 points from junior Justin Cunningham and 10 from junior Jakir Stewart.