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Salem helps Wood top St. Joe's Prep as Bethea goes off

02/07/2023, 12:15am EST
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

Gus Salem’s first experience with Archbishop Wood basketball was a memorable one. 

The Los Angeles native had moved cross-country over the summer and needed to find a school for his senior year, a tough situation for any high schooler, much less one with hopes of playing their sport of choice in college. Salem had gotten connected with Wood head coach John Mosco through his grassroots coach, and went over to visit the school and get in some open runs with its players.

Gus Salem (above) is playing his senior year at Archbishop Wood after moving to Pennsylvania from Los Angeles. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Instead, Salem found himself on a court with not only the Vikings but some of the school’s recent alumni, including Justin Moore (Drexel), Rahsool Diggins (UMass), and, oh yeah, Collin Gillespie

“It was a little surreal, I was like ‘wow, he’s here and I’m playing against him,’ my first time [here] ever,” he said. “He was talking (smack) to me at the free-throw line.”

Though the intense offseason competition, Salem could tell what it meant to play for and at Archbishop Wood, and even if he didn’t know the Catholic League from the Bicentennial, he knew he’d found a good spot for his first year in the Keystone State.

“I just saw the type of atmosphere, how people come back and everyone values coach [John] Mosco,” he said, “and I was like ‘this is a fit.’”

“It’s a tough situation for any, 17, 18-year-old kid,” Mosco. “His mom relocated across the country for her business, and then he turns around and he meets a wild bunch and a wild coach and he’s trying to fit in.”

The 6-foot-2 Southern California native and son of two Lebanese immigrants has spent the last year of his high school career playing in unfamiliar territory, thousands of miles from home, in a league he doesn’t know, with teammates he’d never met before July. And he’s trying to make the most of the situation, to help Wood to another run at Philadelphia Catholic League and PIAA titles.

Even if he’s still learning exactly what that means.

“It’d be lying if I said it hasn’t been difficult," he admitted. "There’s been a lot of changes."

Despite the transition, Salem earned a starting role in the preseason for the Vikings, who despite their youth had every hope of winning a couple titles this winter. And after a rough start to the year, Wood's very much looking like yet another dangerous Mosco squad, playing its best basketball at the right time of year.

Salem played his part in helping Wood pick up one of its biggest wins of the season on Monday night at St. Joseph’s Prep, hitting a clutch 3-pointer late in the fourth quarter and another one early in overtime as the Vikings pulled out a 77-63 win over the Hawks for their fifth straight triumph.

The win moved Wood (13-6, 8-3 PCL) into fourth place in the PCL, thanks to the tiebreaker it now holds over Prep (15-5, 8-3), each with two games left in the league. Win their final two — at West Catholic on Friday and at home against Lansdale Catholic on Sunday — and they lock up one of the four quarterfinal home slots in the league’s playoffs.

It’s also a meaningful win as they hope to get one of the two spots allocated for 6A teams out of the PCL, with three teams (Wood, Prep and Roman) in the classification. As long as Wood finishes at the same round or deeper than Prep in the Catholic League playoffs, it will at minimum have a play-in game to reach the PIAA 6A bracket.

“This was a crucial game for us, for PCL standings and especially 6A with the states,” said East Stroudsburg-bound senior forward Carson Howard, who had a double-double with 10 points and 17 rebounds, six offensive. “It was one of the biggest games, if not the biggest game of our year so far.”

The 6-2 Salem (above, in January) is a strong outside shooter and good athlete. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

The two triples were the only points Salem contributed to the win, but they were both massive ones. That’s been similar to his output this year: he isn’t needed to put up big numbers on a team with plenty of talent around him, but to hit open shots and limit mistakes, defend at a high level and do the little things.

His first triple on Monday night came with two minutes left in the fourth quarter, putting Wood up 60-59 in a game that had started off with Prep in control for the first couple quarters before Wood fought back, the two trading leads down the stretch. 

After foul shots got the game into overtime and Jalil Bethea put Wood up by three on the first possession of the extra period, Salem hit another triple, from the left corner, to make it a 67-61 lead. 

“Those shots are going to be open, he had his feet set, caught the ball and made two big 3s for us,” Mosco said. “The guys trust him, I trust him a lot [...] He’s used to shooting a lot, the fall and AAU is different than when we play the Catholic League, everybody’s scouting you. But I was happy for him.”

Wood cleaned up in the extra session, winning overtime 16-2, Howard hitting four ends of 1-and-1s and Bethea finding him for a layup to seal the win with 90 seconds left. 

Bethea was the star all night long, the junior guard finishing with a career-high 40 points, yet another achievement in his breakthrough season. He was 13-of-19 from the floor and 6-of-7 from 3-point range, hitting all sorts of off-balance jumpers, floaters, leaners, you name it. 

“He’s special,” Salem said. “I’ve seen a lot of special moments from him but this was a big one. He can play.”

Jalil Bethea (above) hit 6-of-7 from 3-point range en route to a career-high 40-point night. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

“He surprises me every day in practice, every game, he just keeps fighting and he wants to win so bad,” Mosco said of Bethea, who’s got double-digit high major offers, an assistant from Seton Hall in attendance Tuesday. “He’s been more mature, not getting mad if they miss him, not getting mad if the ref doesn’t call a foul. If they’re taking you away, you’ve got to work for things, and I think he’s learning that, settling down, making passes, he’s an all-around player, the sky’s the limit for him right now.”

Sophomore guard Milan Dean Jr. also had a strong game for Wood, with 17 points, eight rebounds, six assists, four steals and a block.

St. Joseph’s Prep, which had a three-game win streak snapped, had four in double figures: junior Jalen Harper had 13 points and six rebounds; sophomore Jaron McKie had 13 points and three each of steals, rebounds and assists; sophomore Jordan Ellerbee had 12 points and two rebounds and steals; and junior center Tristen Guillouette had 12 points, nine rebounds, six blocks, four assists and a steal.

The Hawks forced 16 turnovers but shot just 4-of-24 from 3-point range, especially low for a usually sure-shooting group. The Prep has a tough finish, hosting Roman Catholic on Friday for Senior Night and then traveling to O’Hara on Sunday for the season finale.

Salem said he is “leaning towards” doing a prep school next year, though he said he wasn’t going to start thinking about that until after his senior year was over. He he’ll be playing once again for Marcos with Athletes+ on the summer circuit, at a mix of Hoop Group and other regional-level tournaments, working on continuing to improve his body and athleticism as well as his general hoops abilities.

In the meanwhile, he’s got to help continue to find his voice to lead a Wood squad that has three sophomores and two juniors in its top seven, most outside of Howard and Bethea with zero PCL playoff experience. But after losing their first two PCL games and bouncing back to challenge for that top-four spot, Salem is confident that the Vikings can still deliver Mosco his third PCL title. 

“I’ve just seen the fight with this team, these guys are young, so we have to work with them, but we have fight no matter what,” he said. “I’ve never seen us being down and be like ‘we can’t come back from this,’ we’re always a comeback team because everyone’s just hungry.”

By Quarter
St. Joseph’s Prep:  18  |  14  |  13  |  16  |   2   ||  63
Archbishop Wood:  12  |  12  |  21  |  16  |  16  ||  77

St. Joseph’s Prep: 22-64 FG (4-24 3PT), 11-15 FT
Archbishop Wood: 26-59 FG (9-15 3PT), 16-20 FT

St. Joseph’s Prep: Jaron McKie 13, Jalen Harper 13, Tristen Guillouette 12, Jordan Ellerbee 12, Matt Gorman 7, Olin Chamberlain Jr. 6

Archbishop Wood: Jalil Bethea 40, Milan Dean Jr. 17, Carson Howard 10, Gus Salem 6, Josh Reed 4

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