Jalen Pickett’s teammates at Aquinas, and some of the coaches, smile as they describe the point guard’s playing style.
Even Pickett grins, while disputing the thought that he has an “old man’s game.”
“Oh yeah, Coach G tells me that a lot,” the 6-foot-3 junior guard said. “(Aquinas coach Michael Grosodonia) tells me that I move slow, but he likes it, because I’m under control most of the time and I really try to settle the team down.
“It’s a lot of truth to it. I wouldn’t really call it ‘old.’ I play slow. I try to keep myself going at my pace, not really speeding up to go at someone else’s pace, playing my game.”
Pickett’s game is the Section V Class AA champions’ game.
Maybe Aquinas falls short of the flashiest team on the court, but it’s steady, reliable and wins. Three players with double-digit scoring averages, an indication this is a team that shares the ball, and a commitment to defense are more reasons why Aquinas has reached the Class AA state tournament semifinals for the second consecutive season.
Shenendehowa, the top-ranked team in the state at 27-0 and not playing too far from its campus, is the team waiting for Aquinas (22-3) this time around. Aquinas and Shenendehowa play for a spot in the final at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at the Glens Falls Civic Center. While Aquinas has advanced to four state final fours with Grosodonia as coach, no boys basketball team from the private school in the city of Rochester has won a state championship.
Pickett is not the team’s leading scorer, but second at 13.5 points per game, in between senior guard Earnest Edwards (16.4) and 6-5 junior Jason Hawkes (13.2). Pickett does lead Aquinas in minutes per game (27.1), field goal percentage (51), rebounding (7), assists (4.3) and blocks (1.8).
“He’s what makes it all go,” Aquinas senior forward Jamir Jones said. “When he struggles, a lot of people just talk bad about him, but he’s really what makes it go for us. He gets the most attention from other teams.
“His game brings us all together. His passing, his vocal leadership telling everyone where they need to be. He makes it all go. Without him, I don’t think we would even be close to where we are now.”
The Glens Falls Civic Center is where last season came to an end for Aquinas. Brentwood of Section XI on Long Island stopped the then-undefeated Little Irish, 63-56.
“Last year was our first time getting there in awhile, the first time for most of the guys,” Pickett said. “It was my first year on varsity, so I was a little nervous myself, but getting back this year, and I’ve played there before, I think that we’re ready.
“We’ve been there before, so now we know. It’s time to go and do it.”
Shenendehowa should draw a crowd to nearby Glens Falls. Teams from Section II or the Albany region usually do, and the Plainsmen are led by a Division I college recruit, Kevin Huerter, who is headed to University of Maryland.
“Once you get on the court and the lights are turned on there is no better feeling in the world,” Jones said. “To be a sports guy and to have all eyes on you, that’s all you really want.
“Obviously, you want to be able to do it at higher levels, but for now, it’s an unbelievable experience.”
The last loss for Aquinas came on Feb. 6 to Vaughan, a team based in Ontario, Canada, that topped the Little Irish in overtime, 65-62. The last American high school team to defeat Aquinas? Buffalo Canisius, 56-55, on Jan. 28.
Aquinas, including the postseason, beat all 10 of its opponents from Section V. The team’s schedule also included teams from the Albany and Syracuse regions and Pennsylvania. Aquinas lost four starters and five players total from last season’s state final four team, but handled a challenging schedule.
“Obviously, listening to everybody talking about how we were losing a lot (of players to graduation), we had some doubts,” Jones said. “We knew it was going to be hard for us, but after the first two or three games, we immediately knew that we had special players, a great team and a great coach.
“We knew if we trusted in him this is where we would be. Here we are. We’ve worked hard to this point and we’re not trying to come up short again.”
Pickett’s teammates know that the former Aquinas ball boy will do his part to get the Little Irish to the state final.
“Some people say that he plays like an old man because he plays slow, with his back to the basket,” Aquinas senior guard and leading scorer Earnest Edwards said. “That’s what is unique about him, he does a lot of stuff.
“Rebound. Play defense. Shoot the ball. Drive. He’s just an all-around player for us.”
Class AA boys state semifinal
Matchup: Aquinas (22-3) vs. Shenendehowa (27-0)..
When/where: 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Glens Falls Civic Center.
On the court: Aquinas has made it back to the point where the team’s season ended in 2015. The No. 3 state-ranked Section V champions can expect a large crowd, mostly in favor of No. 1 ranked Shenendehowa. Glens Falls and Shenendehowa are in Section II (Albany region). Aquinas is on a seven-game win streak, and it’s no coincidence that none of those opponents scored 50 points.
State semifinals and finals at the Glens Falls Civic Center tend to be low-scoring, but the Aquinas defense is in for a challenge. Shenendehowa is led by Kevin Huerter, a 6-foot-6 point guard who has given a verbal commitment to play at the University of Maryland. The Basketball Coaches Association of New York named Huerter “Mr. Basketball,” the state’s top player, on Wednesday. The winner plays either No. 4 Baldwin-VIII or No. 10 Middletown-IX at 3:15 p.m. Sunday.