Missed the State of the Union on Tuesday night, so I can’t tell you what President Obama said.
I was among the 1,100 who chose hoops over politics to see if No. 1 Sanford could knock off No. 2 Salesianum on its home floor. So I can give a report on the state of Delaware high school basketball.
Rarely has it been better than Tuesday.
Salesianum athletic director Mike Hart said his 700 tickets were sold by 3 p.m. Sanford AD Joan Samonisky said her 400 tickets were gone by 4. I arrived 45 minutes before the 7:30 tipoff and thought the closest parking was going to be at Baynard Stadium before a spot miraculously opened in Sallies’ upper lot.
“That was great,” Sanford coach Stan Waterman said. “You get No. 1 and No. 2 and a packed house, and the atmosphere is great. The student sections are great, the pep band is going. … Both teams had a lot of respect for one another, and it was just good competition and fun.”
Pretty nice words from the losing coach. Salesianum pulled away in the fourth quarter to win 62-49, but there couldn’t have been a single person – players, coaches, fans – who didn’t have a good time. Sallies coach Brendan Haley could feel the buzz.
“Sometimes as a coach, you can’t necessarily get a feel as much as you hear later about some things,” Haley said. “But it’s been electric all day. There’s been a ton of people coming through to get tickets. We knew it was going to be that way, and it was a pretty cool thing.”
Salesianum had to keep its cool after star center Brian O’Neill was whistled for his second foul just 2:22 into the game. The Sals were leading 4-0 when it happened, and they were still ahead 13-10 when the 6-foot-7 senior came back in 18 seconds into the second quarter.
“We got O’Neill with the two early fouls and we should have attacked the basket,” Waterman said. “We kept settling for jump shots.”
Sanford led 25-24 at the half. It was tied at 27 with 6:32 left in the third quarter when O’Neill went to the bench again with his third foul.
But the Warriors couldn’t take advantage. J.T. Harrar, O’Neill’s 6-9 backup, came up big with four points and four rebounds over the next five minutes. When O’Neill came back in – with 1:43 left in the third quarter – the score was tied at 38.
And then it was all over, because the big man took over.
O’Neill is expected to sign a letter of intent to play tight end at Pittsburgh next week, but he looks pretty good on a basketball court, too. He scored three buckets over the next four minutes as the Sals pushed out to a 50-41 lead. And he was a vacuum cleaner on the boards, finishing with 15 points and 18 rebounds despite sitting out almost 11 minutes with the foul trouble.
“That’s basically what I’m down there for, to get rebounds and clean everything up,” O’Neill said. “We know that if I can get most of the rebounds, it gives everyone else a break. We can leak out, we can get into our offense.”
Afterward, Haley attempted to tamp down the euphoria just a bit.
“It’s just a regular-season game,” the Sals’ coach said. “Our goals are still ahead of us.”
Both teams have big goals, and no one would be surprised to see them meet again. That could only happen in the DIAA Boys Basketball State Tournament, most likely in the semifinals or championship game at the Bob Carpenter Center. At least tickets would be a little easier to come by.
“That’s definitely possible,” Haley said of a rematch. “We both have to take care of business, but I imagine that both of us are thinking that’s a possibility. But there are a lot of teams that we have to deal with prior to that.”
Of course, the team that came up short the first time always wants another shot.
“I’d love to play them again,” Waterman said. “Obviously, we want to get this taste out of our mouth. They’re pretty good, and I think we’re going to be pretty good. Hopefully, we’ll see them again down the road.”
But even with more fans, it would be hard to duplicate the atmosphere. The seats in a high-school gym like Sallies start about 3 feet from the edge of the court. The fans were right on top of the players, and both student sections roared all night. It was a classic example of how even in the Internet age, high school athletics can bring a community together for some good, old-fashioned fun.
The Salesianum students spilled onto the floor at the final buzzer, leading to the most anxious moment of the night for O’Neill.
“I got a little scared when they stormed the court,” he said. “My legs were trapped underneath a bunch of people. But it was fun.”
Take it easy with the big fella. The Sals are going to need him the rest of the season.