In my latest boys basketball power rankings column I had Trinity ranked #1 and Salem ranked #4. Going by that logic Friday night's clash between the 2 teams was a preview of a game that we could see again a month from now in the Division I semi-finals in Durham.
Well folks, if tonight's game in Salem was any indication, fans will be in for quite a treat over at UNH. This game not only lived up to the hype, but it was possibly the best boys basketball game of the season so far.
In a game with a handful of lead changes and no one leading by more than 2 or 3 points for most of the way, these teams fought took and nail for every shot, every loose ball and every rebound. In such a close game with 2 evenly matched teams, it was a 7-0 run to end the 3rd quarter by Trinity which turned out to be the difference. The Pioneers went into the 4th quarter up 47-40.
"Salem is a very good team, so I'm proud that our kids were able to pull through said Trinity head coach Dave Keefe. "To get a win in this atmosphere, it gets you ready for Durham."
Trinity's late 3rd quarter run included a put-back by 6'7" junior forward Mabor Gabriel (16 points and 11 rebounds), a pull-up three-pointer by 6'1" freshman guard Ian Sistare (10 points) and a layup in transition by 6'2" sophomore wing Carmen Giampetruzzi (6 points) with just 1 second left in the quarter. Salem battled hard in the 4th to try and make a comeback, but fell just short, as Trinity won 52-49 to improve their league-best record to 12-2 on the season.
Valiant Effort By the Blue Devils
As most people know, I am not a fan of cliches in writing. But after watching this game between Trinity and Salem the one that inevitably comes to mind is 'it's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog.'
Salem was undersized at every position on the floor in this game. Trinity has guys that are 6'10", 6'7" and 6'7" on their front line, while Salem's tallest player is only 6'1".
Trinity rotates Gabriel (6'7"), Andrew Lauderdale (6'7") and Silvere Aluko (6'10") in and out of the lineup, so 2 of them are always on the floor. Meanwhile Salem's tallest kid is 6'1" junior Jack Hartmann.
Despite being undersized in the post, Salem got gutsy performances from guys like Jonathan Klecan, Joe Dube, Ben Slepian and Drew O'Shaughnessy. These guys battled all game on the boards against players for Trinity who were twice their size. And if a Trinity player did pull down the rebound there was always a player there for Salem trying to strip the ball, poke it loose or deflect it over to a teammate. The Blue Devils are the definition of a scrappy team.
"We really had to focus on holding onto the ball" said Gabriel.
Klecan is the heart and soul of Salem's team. He's only 5'5", but he is pound-for-pound the best player in the state. Klecan is not only the NHIAA's best defender, but he also runs the show for the Blue devil's offense as well. He only had 5 points in this game, but he brings intangibles that you simply cannot measure with a stat book. Klecan made a great move late in the 4th quarter to get by his man off the dribble, slash through 2 help-side defenders and finish inside against a couple players over a foot taller than him. That shot cut Trinity's lead to 51-49 with just 1:25 left to play.
"Klecan should be the Player of the Year" said Salem head coach Rob McLaughlin. "He is the best point guard in our league on both ends of the floor. We rely on him to run our offense, and he makes good decisions with the ball very rarely turns it over. And defensively we always ask him to guard the best scorer on the other team, and he is once again the best defender in the state."
On this particular night Klecan was guarding Sistare. As a freshman point guard playing in Division I, Sistare has had to face his share of tough defenders this season already but having to go against Klecan was his toughest challenge yet. In the very first minute of the game Klecan stole the ball from Sistare around half court, took it strong to the rim before getting fouled from behind and heading to the line. He also forced a couple more turnovers, but overall Sistare held his own out there.
"I just love that kid" said Keefe talking about Klecan. "He plays so hard and he goes to the rim against our big guys with no fear."
It should also be noted that Klecan had to sit the last 4:10 of the 3rd quarter after picking up his 4th foul. It was during that stretch when trinity went on their 7-0 run to end the 3rd quarter and in such a tight game that turned out to be the difference.
Slepian's Shooting Kept Salem in It
The other guy who had a BIG game for Salem was Slepian. The 5'11" senior 2-guard is hands down one of the best shooters in the state. If you ask me it's Slepian and Patrick Welch who are far and away the 2 best shooters in the NHIAA. Slepian was simply on fire, connecting on 7 three-pointers en route to a game-high 25 points. He hit for 5 threes and 17 points in the 1st half alone. He does a good job of coming off screens in order to get open, and he doesn't need much room to get his shot off as he has a very quick release. In the 2nd half Trinity did do a better job of limiting the open looks Slepian was able to get.
"We had to really lock down on defense" said Gabriel, who is the younger cousin of former Trinity and then Manchester Memorial standout David Madol. "We started switching on the screens to not let him get open."
Slepian accounted for 17 of Salem's 29 points in the 1st half and 25 of their 49 points for the game. And after a late turnover by Trinity the Blue Devils were able to get the ball back down 52-49 with 10 seconds left in regulation. At that moment everyone in the gym knew who Salem was going to try and get the basketball to.
Slepian ran from the right side of the court along the baseline to the left side, running off screens and trying to get open. But he was blanketed defensively by Giampetruzzi, while fellow sophomore guard Pat Keefe also helped out to double-team him. Slepian couldn't get open, as Trinity left sophomore guard Michael Felix wide open on the right wing. Felix (6 points) hit a couple big shots in the 2nd half of this game, but he is more of a slasher than an outside shooter. Still, he caught the ball with only 3 seconds left, and he was WIDE OPEN so he had to shoot it. Unfortunately for Salem, the shot rimmed out, Gabriel grabbed the rebound and got fouled with just 0.4 seconds remaining. He missed the front end of the 1-and-1, but it didn't matter. Salem got the rebound and as soon as they did the buzzer sounded. Game over.
Giampetruzzi came up with 2 big defensive plays late in the game. Not only was he all over Slepian on the last play to not allow him to get open, but on the previous possession he jumped the passing lane and deflected a pass intended for Klecan. The ball bounced into the back court, with both Giampetruzzi and Klecan diving on the floor for it. It was a jump ball, and the possession arrow gave it back to Trinity.
Injuries Played a Role
Salem relies so heavily on Slepian to score points, if they just had 1 other weapon they probably would have won this game. Dube did a great job in the 2nd half of battling on the boards and made some nifty shots inside against the Trinity bigs. And Klecan had a few mid-range jumpers just barely rim out on him. But Salem also has 2 solid scorers at the guard position who were out of the lineup for this game. Senior point guard Danny Salvo (had 20 points vs. Exeter) was out with and illness, and junior sharpshooter Andrew Ruffen has been out all year so far with a knee injury. If either of those guys are healthy for this game Salem would have likely won it.
Considering those absences, Salem did a great job to hang in there and they had a chance to tie it late. You have to give them a lot of credit, as the Blue Devils are a tough, well coached group.
"They executed what we wanted them to do" said Coach McLaughlin. "We got a couple good looks late, they just didn't go. We teach them that it doesn't matter who scores, just that the team scores. Slepian has had over 20 points a few times now but nobody in our locker room talks about that. It's a 'we' team and they sacrifice a lot for each other."
Trinity meanwhile has injury woes of their own. Senior guard and defensive stopper Hunter Viscarello is out for the year with a torn ACL. If he was healthy you know that he would have been matched up with Slepian, so it must have been tough for him to sit on the bench and watch as Slepian hit three-pointer after three-pointer.
Trinity Had Strong Inside-Outside Game
The Pioneers offensively were able to crash the offensive boards and get a number of put-backs, mostly by Gabriel but Lauderdale and Aluko also chipped in. They were able to put one big guy at the high post and the other one in the low post, and utilize their high-low game to take advantage of their size. This allowed them to get some good looks inside, but still Trinity would have been able to build up more of a lead if they didn't miss so many shots in close.
The inside game opened things up for the Trinity guards, as Keefe, Jake Hamel and Sistare all hit threes. Keefe had 8 points, with all of them coming early in the 2nd quarter when the game had a really nice flow to it. During that stretch the 2 teams went back-and-forth trading threes, as Keefe hit a pair of them and plus Hamel hit one immediately after checking into the lineup, and meanwhile for Salem it was Slepian who came right back for a three of his own and then Klecan hit a nice floater in the lane over the outstretched arm of Aluko. At that point the game had a really nice pace to it, and players on both teams were stepping up and hitting big shots, making for some exciting action.
With the win, Trinity cements their position as the current #1 team in the state, but anyone who saw this game knows that Salem (now 11-4 on the season) is not far behind at all. Spaulding is also in that discussion, and it just so happens that Spaulding plays against Trinity next Friday night.