SMITHFIELD, R.I. – The other side of Wednesday night’s instant classic is Sacred Heart. The Pioneers came out on the wrong end of a game that unfortunately only one team could win. While there were no moral victories to be had, it’s undeniable that they were even in that game and nearly had it won is the end result of a big improvement from last season. It’s also an improvement that will be tough, but hardly impossible, to maintain in the immediate.
Year two for a coach is almost always more challenging than the first year, but given the challenges Anthony Latina faced with his team in his inaugural season a year ago, this might be different. The Pioneers were 5-26 as he took over for the retired Dave Bike, and they simply were not good. There was youth, there was an adjustment – though Latina was an assistant before ascending into the head coaching position, he is not Dave Bike Lite – and the Northeast Conference was very good last year.
And while that last point might lead one to think an improvement by the Pioneers this season is merely the product of a down year in the conference, that isn’t the case. This team is more experienced and didn’t just feast on bottom teams to get into the conference tournament – they beat Bryant twice and won at Mount St. Mary’s.
Latina said he thought the program was a couple of years away from being a contender of any sort. This season changes that. This season makes him a believer in what he has, although they will lose a lot.
“If you asked me about eight months ago,” said the second-year head coach, “I would have told you it was going to take a couple of more years before we were a legitimate contender, and I think because of our seniors, we’ve pushed the date up a little further.”
Phil Gaetano, Evan Kelley and Steve Glowiak gave everything they had, including on Wednesday night. They left it all out on the floor, the former being the best player on the floor for a lot of the latter part of the second half and the extra sessions, the latter two battling tough shooting nights to remain effective. There wasn’t a doubt that if the Pioneers lost, it wouldn’t be for lack of trying, and it reflects what they did all year.
Gaetano will graduate with 730 career assists. He had nine with no turnovers in 43 minutes on Wednesday night to go with 10 points, including a couple of big three-pointers. At times, he picked apart Bryant’s defense the way Tom Brady does to NFL defenses on most Sundays. There were plenty of doubters about whether or not he could play Division I basketball, but the results don’t lie.
“He’s probably the one player that I’ve ever coached where I’ll call a play, and he’ll say, ‘No coach, let’s do this,’ and I’ll defer to him,” Latina said of Gaetano. “His basketball I.Q. and his vision on the court is like no other player I’ve ever coached. That’s how he’s been able to survive if you look at him. He’s a very normal-looking person, he does not look like a Division I athlete. He barely looks like a Division III athlete.”
Kelley realized a lot of his potential in his last two seasons after an injury forced him to redshirt two years earlier, while Glowiak was a solid reserve. The latter didn’t miss by much on a heave from the other foul line before the buzzer of the first overtime, and he was seen sprawling all over the court a few times on Wednesday night leaving nothing to chance.
The seniors did more than put up numbers. They took younger players like talented freshman Cane Broome, who led the team in scoring, under their wing, led an unselfish mentality among the team, and were the primary reason the chemistry was as good as it was. They will set the stage for the likes of Broome, sophomore De’Von Barnett and juniors Tevin Falzon and Jordan Allen, along with other talented younger players who had to wait their turn this season, to bring the program further. But it won’t come easily.
“I’m very pleased with our recruiting, I’m very pleased with the guys we have sitting out,” said Latina. “I think our talent can be better. But I don’t know if we’re going to be a better team because of the leadership that Phil (Gaetano) provides as a coach on the floor, the leadership that Evan Kelley provides and Steve (Glowiak) provides. That’s a big void to fill. I think we can replace their numbers; I don’t know if we can replace that other thing, and that’s going to be our challenge.”
Latina has worked hard to get the opportunity he got a year ago. He’s recruited the area well, especially the talented players in the home state, with Broome being a great example. He’s well-liked and respected, and knows the game well. While certainly influenced by his former boss, he’s forging an identity separate from what Bike did as a lifer at the school. This season, the Pioneers recorded their highest win total in six years, both overall and in the Northeast Conference.
Wednesday night’s loss will sting, especially since they led right before a buzzer-beater in regulation. Just being there, which wasn’t satisfying enough, was a sign that they might come out on the right end of one of them sooner than anyone might have thought coming into this season.