Blaise Vespe (above) has become a key part of N-G's success this season as the Saints made it to the Palestra. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Ari Glazier (@AriGlazier)
You can dissect a game as much as you want, but more often than not the difference between a resounding win or a deflating loss comes down to making shots. Last Friday, Neumann Goretti went 1-for-23 from deep against Cardinal O’Hara at home, resulting in a seven-point loss in which the Saints trailed by 16 at halftime, costing N-G a regular season Philadelphia Catholic League championship.
One week later, N-G stormed out of the gate with an even more commanding opening half than O’Hara enjoyed last week: they went into the third quarter up 22 points, and finished with a 71-46 win.
Unlike the previous meeting, where the trailing team was able to make things interesting down the stretch, Neumann didn’t let up.
“We were open,” Saints coach Carl Arrigale said. “We were open in our home gym and missed shots like that because we weren’t ready to play. We just didn’t shoot them with any conviction. We didn’t play with any kind of force. Tonight we saw a different group.”
Neumann-Goretti (19-4) went 10-for-21 from ‘3’, while holding O’Hara (16-7) to 4-for-14.
Blaise Vespe was a major catalyst for discrepancy. The 6-foot-7 junior didn’t miss a shot in the first half, going 3-for-3 from beyond the arc. He had a quiet second half, but the damage was done. Vespe finished with 12 points on 4-6 shooting.
While Vespe has established himself as a crucial part of the Neumann starting five, it was an uphill battle to get to this point. He spent two years riding the bench at St. Augustine Prep (N.J.), before transferring to N-G in January of last year. After his 30-day wait period was finished, Vespe didn’t have the time or the knowledge of “Philadelphia basketball” as Arrigale dubbed it, to be a contributor.
“The competition’s a lot better here,” Vespe said. “When I first came here I struggled in practice ‘cause I wasn’t used to the speed and aggressiveness… I was getting burnt on defense.”
Over the summer, Vespe managed to familiarize himself with the Neumann-Goretti system and uptempo playing style. His play during off-season scrimmages caught the attention of his teammates, who were preoccupied when Vespe initially entered the program.
“They were kind of focused on winning their playoffs, not so much on me,” Vespe said. “They didn’t realize that I could really step in and help this team.”
In his first year playing consistent minutes since eighth Grade, Vespe serves as a three-point specialist for the Saints, as well as bringing toughness on defense and rebounding. Arrigale proudly cited his 20 charges taken this season as proof of his development as a player.
While Vespe helped spark the Saints with his early shooting, senior Jordan Hall may have had the most impressive all-around night. The St. Joe’s commit collected eight points, eight rebounds, and seven assists. It was the last column that jumped out, with the 6-7 Hall serving as a point-forward for long stretches, comfortable initiating the offense from the perimeter as well as the post. Hall could have easily finished with seven or eight more points, but consistently made unselfish passes that set teammates up with clean looks.
Arrigale believes whole-heartedly in the efficacy of post play initiating the offense; however, players haven’t been as enthusiastic towards the strategy as he would like. It’s taken some creativity to counter the narrative of inelegant and inefficient battles down low.
“The new age, 2020 high school players, they don’t want to post up,” Arrigale said. “They don’t want to be considered post players...so we had to rename it as the ‘playmaker’ spot so we can get some guys to go down there.”
Hall has bought into that concept, relishing the opportunity to back a smaller player down, and kick out just as the defense collapses.
Hall and Vespe’s strong performance coincided with the reemergence of prominent fixtures in Arrigles rotation. Marist commit Hakim Byrd, who battled through an ankle injury in the last O’Hara matchup but was clearly not himself, and the Bowling Green bound Cameron Young, who attempted to play through an ankle injury of his own in that game, but was ultimately forced to miss all but the opening minutes, both rebounded with solid outings.
Junior wing Chris Evans, who also happens to be nursing an ankle injury, seems to be turning a corner as well. He finished with 17 off the bench, shooting 4-5 from deep.
O’Hara was unable to capture the dynamic offensive play that led them to victory last week thanks largely to the N-G zone defense, which also slowed the Lions down in the second half of that earlier meeting.
“They’re a team of drivers,” Arrigale said. “They shoot threes off of the drive. We really wanted to concentrate on being high in the gaps and cutting off the penetration, being able to get back to the guys.”
The second facet of the Saints’ defensive strategy was to shut down Tre Dinkins, who finished with a game-high 19 points last Friday, when he was primarily matched up with NG’s wings and forwards.
Junior Hysier Miller, who came off the bench the last time around, matched up with Dinkins and held him to nine points. Miller, a 6-2 guard with numerous mid-major offers, came through on the other end of the floor as well, with a team-high 18 points.
The win sends NG to the Palestra to take on Archbishop Ryan in the semi-finals, where they fell last year to Roman Catholic. Vespe is chomping at the bit to play his first minutes on that hallowed court, where he watched from the bench last year.
“I’d heard all about it, how there’s 8,000 people there, how packed it gets and how competitive it is,” he said. “It was great to really see what I’m going to be into for the next two years.”
Neumann Goretti: 19 | 25 | 22 | 15 | 71
Cardinal O’Hara: 8 | 14 | 14 | 10 | 46
Neumann-Goretti: 23-49 FG, 10-21 3PT, 15-23 FT
Cardinal O’Hara:19-47 FG, 4-14 3PT, 4-11 FT
Neumann-Goretti: Miller 18, Chris Evans 17, Vespe 12, Young 12, Hall 8, Byrd 4
Cardinal O’Hara: Bambara 13, Purnell 10, Dinkins 9, Burton 9, Irving 4, Rogers 1