WORCESTER, Mass. -– If the dozens of congratulatory handshakes from fans and parents didn’t say it, then the hands-over-head look of relief from Marcus Watson as the final buzzer sounded certainly did.
The Guardians’ coach -- who only four seasons ago coached a young SPM team to a 1-19 record -- had achieved one of the proudest wins of his career to date, and he knew it. By beating No. 18 St. John’s, always considered the Goliath in Central Mass., his team had done something that very few people outside of Grove Street thought was possible.
After losing talented seniors Matt Mobley, Steve Flynn, Brian Foley, and Tre Watson, St. Peter-Marian had very few expectations coming into this year, but with a group the veteran coach says has worked harder than any other he has coached. That lack of expectation, he said, has only made his team work harder.
In beating the Pioneers in a 68-64 overtime thriller on Tuesday night, SPM (8-1) is on the path of earning respect on a far wider scale.
“They’re working on earning respect," Watson said. "This group is a bunch of no-names, but they’ll show up and take a charge if that’s what it takes to win, they’ll box out, [they’ll do] whatever.”
The Guardians were led by seniors Tim Berry (13 points, 11 rebounds), Jalen Evans-Ashton (17 points), and Anthony Manzello (14 points, seven rebounds).
Without injured captain Ken Harrington in the lineup, St. John's (4-3) was forced to look to sophomore Davon Jones and freshman phenom Adham Floyd to pick up some of the slack offensively with their captain being out.
The underclassmen duo didn’t disappoint, as Floyd finished with seven points, six rebounds, and six assists, while Jones ran the Pioneers’ offense and finished with 9 points, but offense for St. John’s mostly came from the post.
Junior T.J. Kelley (13 points) was quiet for the majority of the first half, outside of a buzzer-beating three at the end of the first quarter, but Charlie Murray (11 points) and Alex Fisher (14 points) stepped in and led the Pioneers to a 34-30 halftime lead.
With or without Harrington, Watson maintained the same gameplan going up against St. John’s.
“They might be young, but they have so much experience," Watson said. "They played in the state semifinals last year. TJ Kelley’s been to two state semis and one state final, he’s been to the districts three years in a row.
“People say how young they are, but they still have more experience that most of Central Mass. Coach Foley does a wonderful job with his kids.”
Manzello’s big night: One of Watson’s “no-name” seniors is sharpshooter Anthony Manzello, who came out and nailed three 3-pointers early in the first half, giving St. Peter-Marian an offensive boost when they were having a hard time getting much going on that end of the floor. Finishing with four treys in all, as well as a standout rebounding performance, he set the tone for the scrappy Guardians squad.
“Anthony is a kid who has worked so hard on his game,” Watson said. "He always has the green light to shoot it, he’s the type of kid who can get hot in a game and hit six or seven threes, but he’s also going to get into the game and do the dirty work.”
Berry, the 6-foot-5 forward, had a hard time getting anything going offensively until the fourth quarter and overtime period, and was thankful for the lift that his fellow senior gave his team early on.
“He bailed us out, he’s a great shooter," Berry said. "I’ve been playing with him all my life and he’s one of my best friends, I was so happy for him that he hit those shots...It really gave the team and extra boost when we needed it.”
Manzello, a captain and vocal leader, was also praised by his coach after the game for his work in the off-season. He often led off-season workouts, made sure teammates were getting shots up, and helped bring the team together during a summer tournament at Franklin Pierce University. Berry, Evans-Ashton, Kevin Riley, and Terence Watson -- all of whom are starters -- assisted Manzello in bringing about camaraderie.
“I have five seniors who have been playing together since seventh grade, they come out and compete and it might not always be pretty, but they get it done," Watson said. "Beating SJ means a lot to the school, we have a lot of support from our school.”
Foley’s chase for No. 800: Pioneers coach Bob Foley still sits at win No. 798, and will goe for 799 against Cental Mass. Conference foe St. Bernard’s on Friday night. St. Peter-Marian has beaten the Pioneers the last two regular seasons, but Watson is adamant that younger coaches like himself can learn a lot from the way Foley has built his program at St. John’s, a team who has won five consecutive Central Mass. Division 1 championships.
“I look at him and his program, and I hope to emulate some of those things...and learn the way he manages the game," Watson said. "I hope he does get the chance to get to 800, that’s just remarkable coaching for 50 years, I have so much respect for him.”
Be the best, beat the best: Coming off a victory over Catholic Memorial on Sunday, Watson’s team was on an emotional high, ready to prove to the rest of Central Mass. that they are, in fact, for real. The Knights -- now ranked No. 17 in ESPNBoston.com's Top 25 poll -- and St. John’s helped prepare the Guardians for what may be their toughest test of the season on Saturday, when they host No. 19 Charlestown.
In playing three ranked teams in a row, and with Newton South and Whitinsville Christian still on tap, St. Peter-Marian has plenty of tough teams ahead of them.
“Tell me another team in Central Mass. who is playing Catholic Memorial, St. John’s, and then Charlestown on Saturday all in a row like that, and then on that following Monday we play Whitinsville Christian," Watson said. "We’re not running from anybody...We want to be prepared for everything.”
A talented, athletic squad who can rip through a defense in the blink of an eye, Charlestown will present quite a challenge on Saturday for a Guardians squad who looks inferior on paper to the Townies.
But then again, that’s when they've done their best this season.