By Joseph Santoliquito (@JSantoliquito)
Around this time last year, the Swarthmore Garnet were packed five each in three cars heading for a small, scenic Maine town called Saco, a seaside ocean resort on the Atlantic Ocean. Keene State sent them there, after a disheartening 84-83 first-round round loss in the 2022 Division III NCAA Tournament.
It didn’t take long for the Garnet to recover. They spent a week together during Swarthmore’s spring break in chilly Saco, talking over their past season, and bonding over what could be ahead as they digested March Madness.
It made the core nucleus of the 2022-23 Garnet that much stronger. That bond will be tested on Friday night, against the same team that sent the Garnet packing last year, Keene State, when No. 7 Swarthmore (26-3) host the No. 5 Owls (28-1) at 7:15 p.m., which will follow the first game between Nichols College and Stockton University at 4:15 p.m. in the NCAA Men's Basketball Division-III Sweet 16.
The winners will face each other in the NCAA Division III Elite Eight back at Tarble Pavilion on Saturday at 7:15 p.m.
Swarthmore senior forward George Corzine goes up for a shot earlier this season. (Photo: Owen McCue/CoBL)
Swarthmore is coming off a season-high 101-point performance in their 101-78 victory over St. John Fisher University in the second round, sparked by 23 points from 6-foot-1 freshman guard Cal Hanson and 22 from 6-1 junior guard Vinny DeAngelo, the Centennial Player of the Year who graduated from Sun Valley.
DeAngelo remembers the seven-hour drive to Saco, a spontaneous road trip since the Garnet’s March plans were scheduled around going deeper into the 2022 NCAA Tournament.
When they lost to Keene, they didn’t know what to do, so at the invite of graduating senior Garnet guard Conor Harkins, they took the trip to his family’s property in Saco.
“I would say we did some healing from the Keene loss on that trip, and we talked about going further this year,” DeAngelo said. “We had guys on that trip like Julian Levin, George Visconti, Colin Shaw and George Corzine who have been great senior leaders on this team. They were all part of the 2018-19 team that played in the national championship game as freshmen and took a year off from COVID.
“As soon as we got on campus in late-August, we were all back in the gym for our captain workouts, and playing in open gyms a couple times a week and lifting a couple of times a week. What was unique was the work ethic of our freshmen, who came in hungry and working hard. That attitude spread, and it made us all work harder. It showed how committed our young guys were, and it set the standard for the guys coming back.
“With every year, it’s a different squad, and we have three goals, to win the Centennial Conference, win the Centennial Conference Tournament, and win the NCAA Tournament. Last year stung a little because we were knocked in the first round. It left a sour taste that fueled us over the summer, over the pre-season and during the season to be the best team we can be.”
Keene carries a 13-game winning streak into the contest. Entering the game, the Owls were among the top 15 Division III scoring teams in the nation, averaging 86.3 points a game, while giving up 67.8. Swarthmore averages 79 points a game and yields 65.4 points a game. The Owls are led by 6-4 sophomore guard Octavio Brito, who averages 20.6 points a game, and 6-7 senior forward Jeff Hunter, who averages 18.9 points a game.
The Garnet had problems curtailing that duo last year. They combined to score 45 of Keene’s 84 points in last year’s NCAA tournament loss on a combined 17 of 31 shooting. A Brito three-pointer with 2:19 to play proved to be the dagger, putting Keene up by nine, 76-67, and forcing Swarthmore to scramble.
The Garnet whittled the lead down to 84-83 on a DeAngelo three-pointer with 4 ticks left and that was it.
Keene likes to play up-and-down and likes to pressure teams defensively, according to DeAngelo. The Owls will try to disrupt the Garnet’s offensive flow.
“They have some really talented guys who can play well in isolation down low and out on the perimeter, so our key will be to play good team defense and supporting one another,” DeAngelo said. “That’s what I like about our team right now. I like the pace we’re playing at, pushing the ball and not allowing the defense to get entrenched. We’re playing a lot of unselfish basketball, and defensively, it’s about talking to each other and connecting.
“We need to continue staying external on defense and not go internal. Staying external on the court is helping us stay who we are.”
Visconti was on the Saco trip. He remembers losing to Keene last year and being stuffed in the car up to Maine. He recalls the look on the faces of the seniors as they walked off the court after playing their last college basketball game.
“One take away from that group is a real passion for life, with a positive attitude and outlook, and they lived in the moment,” Visconti said. “It’s something we took from them and what I love most about how we’re playing now. That is staying in the present, too. Up five or down five, we take each play as it comes. We’re playing really selfless basketball, and at this point, everyone is clicking.
“We’re really rotating well on defense and we’re getting the best shot on offense. Against Keene, first and foremost, we’ll need to stay with our principles, bringing a lot of energy, staying connected, staying together, and we’ll need to push the ball offensively. On defense, there were times when we were five individuals on an island, and we didn’t play well. We’re best when we play as one heartbeat.”
Presently, Swarthmore is playing with a ton of confidence, helped by the play of freshmen Hanson and fellow guard Eddie Paquette, who scored 15 in the Fisher victory.
No one wearing Swarthmore garnet and white is thinking about spontaneous road trips.
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who began writing for CoBL in 2021 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.
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