Could this be the year?
The Salesianum basketball team won unofficial state titles in 1923, 1928 and 1956. But since the DIAA Boys Basketball State Tournament began in 1967, the Sals have experienced nothing but frustration.
Sallies has reached the final five times – in 1975, ’83, ’91, ’93 and 2004. The Sals have reached the semifinals four other times, including last year. But they have never won a DIAA state title – the only championship missing from the school’s glittering athletic resume.
“You run into people that say, ‘Hopefully this is the year,’ ” Salesianum coach Brendan Haley said Monday. “I’ve heard that comment, and things like, ‘You guys have got to do it.’ There’s been some of that from the alums.”
The Sals arguably have their best chance this year, coming into the tournament with an 18-2 record and the No. 1 seed. The dynamic duo of 6-foot-4 junior guard Donte DiVincenzo, who has committed to Villanova, and 6-7 senior center Brian O’Neill, who has signed to play football at Pittsburgh, has made Sallies the team to beat all season.
“There was no point in trying to hide from it,” Haley said. “So I told the kids, ‘Let’s embrace the expectations instead of trying to downplay it or run away from it.’ The expectations are there.”
The top eight seeds earned first-round byes in the 24-team tournament. Eight first-round games will be played at 7 p.m. Wednesday on the home floors of the higher-seeded teams. The winners will advance to play on the home floors of the top eight seeds in the second round at 7 p.m. Friday.
Then the action shifts to the Bob Carpenter Center, with the quarterfinals on Sunday, the semifinals on March 6 and the championship game at 1 p.m. March 8. Second-seeded Sanford has played in that title game in each of the last four years, becoming the first school to win three in a row before falling to Howard last season. The Warriors are gearing up for another deep postseason run.
“We’re playing pretty well as of late,” Sanford coach Stan Waterman said. “We had a rough stretch midway through the season, but since that time we’ve improved and gotten better. We’ve been playing some good basketball the last couple of weeks.”
Sanford (14-6) comes into the tournament with its most losses since 2009, the last time the Warriors didn’t reach the final. But Sanford has lost only once in Delaware – a 62-49 setback at Salesianum on Jan. 28 in which the Warriors only trailed 44-41 with 6½ minutes left.
“We had a pretty ambitious schedule early, and we really challenged ourselves to play some very good teams out of state,” Waterman said. “I think it has helped us. We learned a lot a lot about ourselves, and as we got back in the state toward the end of the season, I like the way we’re playing right now.”
Of course, there are other contenders. No. 3 seed Woodbridge (16-3) won the Henlopen South and proved it is the best team downstate by defeating Henlopen North champ Caesar Rodney twice in the last week. No. 4 Concord (14-6) is loaded with dangerous 3-point shooters, and No. 5 St. Mark’s (14-5) played Sallies tough twice, holding DiVincenzo to 18 total points.
But any team planning to beat the Sals will have to overcome their defense. Salesianum has held the opposition under its season scoring average in 13 of its 15 games against Delaware teams.
“We’re long, and we’re kind of a veteran group,” Haley said. “When you have size and length – and I think we’re pretty athletic, too – you can really put the clamps on people if guys are willing to do that. Not every night has been like that, but a lot of the times when it was required we rose to the occasion.”