St. Vincent-St. Mary entered the postseason as the state’s No. 1 Division II team, and the Fighting Irish proved it Sunday night.
STVM won its ninth overall victory in the boys’ basketball state and its eighth since 2000 with an unranked 72:50 win over Columbus St. Francis DeSales in the University of Dayton Arena state championship game.
STVM (25-2) took a while to get started. The Fighting Irish were 33-28 behind at the end of the first half, but the Irish – spurred on by their man-to-man trapping press in court – looked like a different team after half-time from the locker room.
The Irish opened half-time with a 17-1 run, scooping 10 points on the seven turnovers they forced in the quarter. The Irish achieved 24 total points on 16 DeSales sales.
“I’ve sat on the other side a few times and felt like I was holding the team back and not letting them go,” said STVM coach Dru Joyce II. “When we came down, I just decided that I would If we were struck at 40 it wouldn’t be because I wouldn’t let her go this time.
“I let them go and they brought up an energy that DeSales sure has never seen before. They turned it all around and made it special for this group. They played their hearts out so I’m really grateful.”
DeSales coach Pat Murphy agreed that STVM, putting its press in court, made all the difference as the game progressed.
“We had to deal with that pressure because it changed everything,” he said. “We didn’t handle it very well, giving them simple buckets, and they live on live ball sales.”
In his effort to bring STVM back into the game, Ohio state senior and recruit Malaki Branham also showed why he is ranked the best state player in his class.
Branham not only remained a reassuring presence in a less than outstanding first half, but also led the lead in the crucial third quarter with 16 of his 37 game-strong points (in 15-of-21 shooting). In fact, in the 17-1 run, Branham scored eight consecutive points with a layup, a transition dunk, a pull-up jumper, and two free throws.
Branham, who has topped his high school career in 2018 and now in 2021, said at halftime that he was focused on re-emphasizing a sense of urgency with his teammates before Joyce changed the schedule.
“16 minutes left, I wasn’t trying to lose,” said Branham. “I was just trying to give it my all. I told my teammates before we stepped on the pitch that it will be the last 16 minutes we will ever play together. So let’s just go out there, have fun and try to win.” “”
Branham added four rebounds and three assists, and STVM received 11 points and four rebounds from Ramar Pryor and five points and six assists from Sencire Harris.
By the time the third quarter was over, the Irish had beaten DeSales 26-9 to gain a 54-42 advantage in the final eight minutes.
In the fourth quarter, STVM kept the stallions goalless for the first 3:14 and increased their lead to 16 points. STVM beat DeSales 18-8 in the final eight minutes when Branham scored eight more points.
The advantage was not easy for STVM. The Irish faced 23 points from Desmond Watson, the leading scorer in DeSales history with 1,722 career points.
DeSales (19-8), who led the entire first half, took a 5-0 lead in the first 90 seconds of the game. Two buckets from Branham pulled the Irish to one point, but the stallions retained a slight advantage and were leading 13:10 at the end of the first eight minutes.
It didn’t help either that STVM had trouble shooting early, especially from deep.
In the first quarter, STVM missed all three of its 3-point attempts and only went 1 out of 5 from the deep in the first half, with Pryor falling as the baseline look. For the game, STVM only shot 1 in 7 with 3 pointers and 28 out of 46 out of the field (60.9%) overall.
As bad as STVM was from the start, DeSales was no better and went 0 to 7 in the first half. The stallions made up for this deficit by coming to the line and making all nine free-throw attempts in the first half. STVM only tried four free throws.
DeSales started the second quarter with another strong 6-0 run. The stallions led in the quarter with up to 13 players and took the lead with 2:40 against 29-16 to go on a layup by Atticus Schuler in half.
But during the quarter, STVM responded with a 12: 4 run. The Irish sank their last five shots – three from Branham and two from Pryor, including his 3-pointer – in half.
At the end of half the Irish closed the gap to 33-28 as Branham and Watson continued to duel with 13 and 14 points respectively in the first half.
Overall, Joyce said he was proud of his team, not only because of the comeback on Sunday, but also because of the performance in a year of uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been a difficult season, not just for us but for everyone,” he said. “To endure all the trials that we have all been through, not just in this country, but also in this world, with this pandemic.
“What was tough for a high school basketball team that had the chance to play with whatever was in the flow, we never knew if we could play that week or not. We tried to get our boys in to hold a bubble. ” Make sure they got the chance to play and these guys went through it all and they were great.
“We are grateful for everything that happened and for Columbus DeSales and the coaching team. They did a great job and we have great respect for this program.”