Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
SPRINGFIELD, Mass.–With nine minutes remaining in the first half of University of the Science’s first-ever Division II men’s basketball tournament game, Garret Kerr picked up his second foul.
USciences head coach Dave Pauley, who couldn’t afford to be without his star senior for any extended stretch, had no choice but to leave Kerr in against St. Anselm (N.H.).
“Zero chance of substitution,” Pauley said definitively. “Don’t ever rearrange the deck chairs of the Titanic.”
While the metaphor might be a little confusing–the Devils’ ship is far from sinking–it was the right choice to make.
The 6-foot-4 forward caught fire at the end of the first half en route to arguably the best game of his stellar college career, leading the Devils to a 73-57 win over the Hawks at American International College.
A team whose program had never been to the NCAA Tournament before played like they were regulars, leading for the final 32 minutes of play.
“This is an unbelievable experience,” Kerr said afterwards. “It hasn’t been done for us before, for us to come in here and get a win, it’s awesome. I think it’s great for our school and great for our guys.”
After missing his first three 3-point attempts of the game, Kerr knocked down his next three–including an NBA-range triple with a hand in his face to end the first half.
It was that kind of game for the Devils’ star and three-time CACC Player of the Year, who entered the game third nationally in scoring (24.9 ppg) and second nationally in rebounding (12.7), and certainly didn’t seem to be fazed by the big moment.
He would finish with a career-high 40 points on 15-of-29 shooting, adding in 14 rebounds for his 88th career double-double–the most among active NCAA players in any level.
“I didn’t know until I came out,” Kerr said of his 40-point performance. “I don’t really have too much of an idea when I’m out there.
“When I’m feeling it like that I kind of know that I’m probably up there but I missed my first three free throws so I know I left some out there. I think I’ve had like 37 three times; I never could break it and then today was, I guess, the first time.”
Though it was only the second 40-point game of Kerr’s career–he said he also accomplished the feat in high school at Middle Township (N.J.)–Pauley said he saw it coming.
“We practiced at Hartford University, and I felt like that wasn’t our last practice together,” he said. “I thought if he’d go for 40 or 50, we’d win. And he did.”
After taking a 12-point advantage into the break, USciences saw its lead grow to as many as 18 in the opening minutes of the second half. St. Anselm, led by star senior Chris Santo, would cut that down to as few as seven with 8:30 remaining.
Santo, a former Cherry Hill East star who began his career at Vermont before transferring to St. Anselm in 2012, finished with 18 points and nine rebounds in his final college game, scoring 14 in the second half even as he battled the flu. Victor Joshua and Roy Mabrey added 12 each for the Hawks.
But it was the play of Kerr and freshman guard Flo Da-Silva that buoyed USciences down the stretch.
Da-Silva, a 6-1 guard from Bishop Eustace (N.J.), certainly didn’t play like a first-year college student in his biggest career game. He came up with a big offensive rebound and found Kerr for a layup with six minutes to play, and hit his own driving bucket on the next possession to help the Devils maintain a double-figure lead.
“Probably the biggest game I’ve ever played in,” Da-Silva said. “The most impact, a lot riding on the game, first time here.”
While Da-Silva admitted that his team was a little nervous, he and his older brother Sho Da-Silva helped kick-start things off early on. Both teams came out missing the majority of their shots, but when Pauley inserted the brothers from Bishop Eustace (N.J.), the Devils certainly got a boost.
Flo finished with 11 points, three assists and four steals, while his older brother had 15 points, nine rebounds, three steals and two blocks as both were giving the Hawks fits all over the court.
“Coming in as like sixth and seventh man we just want to like provide energy for the team…we want to be spark plugs off the bench,” Flo Da-Silva said. “We definitely motivate the guys and they motivate us when we come in with fresh legs.”
An at-large selection to the NCAA Tournament, USciences was given a No. 6 seed in the eight-team East regional, one of eight taking place across the nation this weekend to determine the Elite 8 of the D-II tournament. The take down of No. 3 St. Anselm means they’ll face another NE-10 team in the second round, either 2-seed Southern New Hampshire or 7-seed Stonehill College on Saturday at 5 PM.
With just one day’s turnaround before the team’s second-ever NCAA Tournament game, Pauley said they’re trying to slow things down as the schedule speeds up.
All that matters is that they’re still there.
“Tonight,” Pauley said, “they’re getting extra meal money.”