In a matchup that’s traditionally more a tug-of-war than an arcade game, Brendan Haley received just enough big plays from his floor leaders.
Haley’s No. 2-ranked Sals held off No. 5 St. Mark’s 45-36 in boys basketball action Friday night.
Brian O’Neill and Donte DiVincenzo each scored a dozen points in a tooth-and-nail contest as the Sals improved to 10-2. Matt Williams paced St. Mark’s (8-2) with 12 points on a night when defense ruled and the scorebook kicked back and relaxed.
“It’s just a matter of them playing really good defense,” Sals coach Haley said of the Spartans. “We’re trying to do the things we do, but they just do a great job of making it tough on you.
“I always tell the guys, when we play St. Mark’s, the team concept almost negates itself because we know each other so well and it becomes you winning your one-on-one battle. I don’t think we won the majority of them; I think our top players kind of came through for us and they didn’t have an answer for them. Brian’s a big guy, and Donte’s obviously very talented.”
The key for Salesianum was in getting an early lead and then matching the Spartans’ intensity.
Williams’ 3-pointer gave St. Mark’s its last lead at 8-6 midway through the first quarter. DiVincenzo, a junior who has verbally commited to Villanova, hit a jumper from the foul line, Joe McCusker scored off a Shane Clark steal and O’Neill took a lob from DiVincenzo to score underneath as the Sals forged a 12-8 lead by the end of the quarter.
DiVincenzo, a 6-foot-4 guard, was hounded all game by feisty 5-6 guard Pete Berardi, but the 19.6-point-per-game scorer did tally seven points in the crucial second period. The 6-7 O’Neill, working underneath against a defense that smothers the inside game, added four points as the Sals took a 26-16 lead into intermission.
“Everybody focuses on Donte,” said St. Mark’s coach Nick Sanna, “but Brian’s a tough guard, with his size, and he’s strong, and he’s very skilled for a big fellow, too.”
Berardi and Nick Papa 3-pointers early in the third period cut the Sals’ lead to 30-24, but Salesianum had an answer with each threat.
DiVincenzo found Clark underneath for an open layup with a no-look pass, O’Neill put back a follow off a DiVincenzo missed trey and Clark hit a free throw off the break as the lead reach a game-high 11 points.
St. Mark’s cut the lead to six points, then five late in the game, before Dave Barone sank four free throws to ice the Sals’ win.
O’Neill was pleased to get the victory, even though he knew he’d have a more difficult time getting the ball down low against the Spartans defense.
“I just tried to do everything else better,” he said. “And credit Donte. They were all over him all night, and he kept his composure the whole time. He played really well.”
The Sals won the necessary battles. But just barely.