WORCESTER, Mass. -– Following last week’s road loss to Newton North, Catholic Memorial coach Denis Tobin was looking for his team to turn in a much better performance the next time they put on the Scarlet Red away uniforms.
Tobin got just that on Sunday night, when his Knights knocked off No. 11 St. Peter-Marian (4-1) on the road for a 71-68 victory.
Led in scoring by sophomore Brandon Twitty (15 points) and captains Guilien Smith (15 points) and Gerard Adams (13 points, 11 rebounds), the Knights (5-1) were able to withstand a late rally by SPM to seal the victory in the closing moments of the game.
“This our second time on the road wearing the red, [and] we didn’t do a good job the first time, so we had to respond tonight. I thought we did,” Tobin said.
The Knights jumped out to a couple quick, early leads, but the Guardians, led by sophomores Makai Ashton (24 points, 7 rebounds) and Greg Kuakumensah (18 points, 9 rebounds), on several occasions fought their way back into the game to dwindle the lead down to two or three points.
Adams dominated the paint in the first half, finishing some pinpoint passes from Smith or super quick point guard Aamahne Santos (10 points). After a second quarter run by SPM, the Knights were able to extend the lead to 39-32 by halftime.
“I thought this was the first team that ran with us," Tobin said. "In the first half our defense was solid, we held them to like 32 points, that puts them on pace at 64, which is what we want. I thought fatigue set in on both teams in the second half, and the defense let up by both teams -- easy baskets were scored."
It certainly looked like fatigue got the best of CM early in the second half, when a run fueled by Ashton and forward Sean Sweeney (8 points, 6 rebounds) helped to bring the lead down to 48-45. However, a 10-4 run put the Knights in the drivers’ seat with six minutes to go.
Santos pushes the tempo: It seemed like every time Catholic Memorial was out of sync against St. Peter-Marian, Santos was there to get his team back on track, push the tempo, and create easy scoring opportunities for others in transition. An athletic, quick-footed point guard who will generally rack up more assists than points despite his scoring prowess, Santos was the catalyst for much of Catholic Memorial’s offensive success on Sunday.
“You can’t simulate what they do as far as makes and misses, pushing the ball in transition. It’s hard to simulate that. However, we just did a poor job at times of locating our man and getting back in rotation,” Guardians coach Marcus Watson said. “Overall, the Santos kid is really tough...I think Guilien Smith is a stud, and [Brandon] Twitty is only a sophomore. They’re loaded, they’re absolutely loaded. It’s a good test for us, it shows us where we’re at and what we need to work on.”
The fast pace CM plays with is no coincidence. After skill work early in practice, the Knights will follow that up with Tobin’s version of conditioning: scrimmages.
By putting an emphasis on tenacious ball pressure defensively and pushing the tempo offensively, the coach has turned his squad into creatures of habit. When SPM started missing shots at the end of the game, it was Santos who caught the outlet passes and flew up the court for two acrobatic lay-ups to seal the win.
The difference between the Newton North loss and the win over St. Peter-Marian?
“We allowed Newton North to slow us down, and we played fast the whole night tonight,” Tobin said. “We have to impose our will and play fast all the time.”
Sophomores shine: Between the impressive performances from Ashton, Twitty, and Kuakumensah, there was certainly no lack of sophomore talent on the floor in Worcester on Sunday night. Matt Hanna (9 points) and Kellan Grady (6 points), both sophs from CM, made some solid contributions for the Knights. Impressed by the play of Twitty off the bench, Tobin praised his 6-foot-1 guard after the game, comparing Twitty to former "Bad Boy" Detroit Piston Vinnie Johnson.
“He’s a terrific scorer, he’s our sixth-man. He reminds me of Vinnie Johnson, 'The Microwave', he heats up immediately once he steps on the floor,” Tobin said. “He’s a great weapon for us to have. As our starters wear down and the other team [as well], we’re coming in with a kid who can really score.”
Ashton fought to bring the Guardians back in the fourth quarter, while Kuakumensah -- brother of current Brown University forward Cedric Kuakumensah -- dazzled the crowd with some high-rising dunks, rebounds, and blocks.
“I think they’re definitely showing what they’re capable of doing, but I think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. Some decision-making down the stretch kind of hurt a little bit, but you cannot take away their heart, their competitiveness, and just their desire and will to compete,” Watson said. “Makai definitely has the keys to the car…when he’s out of control, we’re out of control, and when he’s in control, we’re much better.”
It was those turnovers, questionable decisions, and errant three-point attempts, though, that ultimately got the best of the Guardians toward the end of the game.
“I think it was a lack of gametime experience down the stretch," Watson said. "We’ve beaten down on some teams early in the year, and this was a test. We settled for threes when we could have still attacked the basket...It’s one of those things you’re going to learn from, it’s going to help us get better down the road."
The young Knights looked discouraged by their play after the game, despite coming through with the close victory. While Tobin acknowledges that there are adjustments to be made, he chose to keep it positive after his team picked up a tough road win.
“They were sitting in there and some of them were down because we turned it over a lot," Tobin said. "I told them ‘smile, this is a great win. We just beat a very solid team in their own gym,’ and then they smiled and let up a bit.”