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Saint Francis scores a big, unlikely win

March 6, 2014 Columns No Comments
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SMITHFIELD, R.I. – When the final buzzer sounded, Ronnie Drinnon turned to the students and raised his arms, even though his team was on the road. His coach could barely contain himself a couple of minutes later. And if you know a little of the history of Saint Francis University, including recently, along with how much the coach knows about that history and the makeup of the team right now, you can understand why.

It might be one of the biggest quarterfinal wins in a mid-major conference tournament in some time. Drinnon had just played the game of his life, and a program that hasn’t tasted a great deal of success got a big win that can be a big momentum boost even if they get thumped in their next game on Saturday.

“That’s a statement win for us and this program and Coach (Rob) Krimmel,” said Drinnon, who had career highs of 20 points and 18 rebounds, making seven of his 12 field goal attempts.

How unlikely was this? Let us count the ways.

For starters, Saint Francis is not exactly a program that is steeped in winning tradition. The program has been around since 1905-06 and has over 100 more losses than wins in its history. They have exactly 100 more losses than wins in Northeast Conference games in their history as a charter member of the conference. They have made exactly one NCAA Tournament appearance, coming in 1991 when Jim Baron led them there. And Wednesday night was the first win in NEC Tournament play since 1995 – when Drinnon, the hero of the night, was barely a year and a half old, and when Krimmel was still in high school.

Then there’s Krimmel, who has a little better sense of the program’s history than many at the school. He has been there in some capacity since 1996, having played there from 1996-2000 and then becoming an assistant coach for 12 seasons before taking over as the head coach. His father, Bob Krimmel, is in his ninth year as the athletic director at the school.

Then there’s last year, Krimmel’s first at the helm. It was not one for the books, as the Red Flash went 5-24 and didn’t make the conference tournament, with 17 of those losses coming by double digits. It’s fair to say the program seemed to have a long road ahead, especially as this year’s team shaped up to be very young with no seniors.

“It’s amazing how far we have come with our chemistry, and that goes as a credit to Earl Brown, an amazing guy on and off the court,” said Drinnon. “He’s our leader and he keeps this team together. That alone got us that win tonight.”

After that, there’s Drinnon. He graduated from high school early and then spent the second half of what would have been his senior year in high school in Loretto with the Red Flash. Last year, he had modest numbers of 4.8 points and 3.3 rebounds per game, starting 16 games while playing all 29. His numbers this season improved to 7.0 and 5.1, respectively. He missed three games earlier in the season with a torn meniscus in his knee. And in perhaps the most interesting sign of how unlikely it was that he would be sitting in front of the media, a placard with his name on it could not be located before the press conference. His name had to be written down on one that was blank above the school name.

But on Wednesday night, he was the best player on the floor. He kept them in the game with 11 rebounds in the first half, just one off a career high, with six coming at the offensive end. He had tied that career high when, with 8:39 left, he picked up his fourth foul, which at first glance could have been a game-changer. Bryant led 49-41 and had the momentum, and now this.

Drinnon didn’t sit, and quickly surpassed his career high in rebounds as he grabbed three more in short order. Four fouls didn’t deter him.

“At that point, I couldn’t afford to take him out,” said Krimmel. “We had to let him ride. He’s such a smart kid – not only on the basketball court, but he’s a PT student, so I knew if there was anybody over there who could figure out that he had four fouls and be able to play smart, he was the guy.”

What the box score doesn’t tell you is that he played almost the entire final 8:39 with four fouls, and he didn’t stop being aggressive or effective. He had six rebounds and nine points in that time, and one of those rebounds was a back-breaker as it came after he missed the front end of a one-and-one with 29.8 seconds left and his team up by one. He made the two free throws after that to put them up by three and make it tougher for Bryant to come back. In all that time, he only sat for a few seconds before a media timeout.

The game in some ways mirrored a lot of the Red Flash’s season. They started very slowly, falling behind 11-4 as they missed five of their first seven shots and had three turnovers. They would trail until the final seconds of the half despite shooting just 40 percent and turning the ball over eight times. Bryant started the second half hot, at one point going up 49-38 after running off nine unanswered points. They had to survive at the end, as Bryant had chances in the final seconds.

Saint Francis will play at Robert Morris on Saturday in the semifinals. Winning that will be a tall order, as the Colonials are the top seed and are much more experienced. But even if they get thumped in that game, Wednesday night’s unlikely win will be huge for them. This team has the conference’s Rookie of the Year in point guard Malik Harmon and no seniors, so everyone is back next year. This win will boost the confidence in a big way. It should also make them hungry for more.

Given all of that, it’s understandable that Drinnon and Krimmel would react as they did. For one night, as Drinnon said after the game, they were on Cloud Nine along with everyone else on the team, and you can hardly blame them.

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