While protective mats on the wall behind a basket in their gym continue to fall to the floor and occasionally interrupt game action due to Velcro problems, the St. Thomas More Knights show no signs of slipping.
Since a season-opening loss to the St. Mary Crusaders, the St. Thomas More senior boys’ high school basketball team has been solid, winning nine of 10 Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic Athletic Association starts. The latest was an impressive 56-53 decision over the visiting Cathedral Gaels on Tuesday (Feb 4).
If the 9-2 Knights can defeat the two-time defending champion 10-1 Cardinal Newman Cardinals at STM on Thursday night (Feb 6) in the final game of the regular schedule, the Knights take first place in the standings and receive an automatic first-round playoff bye.
Newman’s only loss this season was 56-54 to St. Thomas More on Dec. 17.
“It will be a big game on Thursday … for first place,” Jaylen Clarke said after scoring nine points to help More to its sixth straight league victory. It was Clarke, a Grade 11 student, who sank two free throws with no time left on the clock to lift the Knights to their pre-Christmas win over Newman.
Cathedral (8-3) was the last team to defeat More. That was by a 66-59 count on Dec. 12.
The Knights led all the way in the rematch – 17-9, 28-22 and 47-37 at the quarter breaks. And a key for the winners was the play of fifth-year guard Ryan Doornick who drained 25 points, including five shots from behind the perimeter.
Osayi Ignivan added 14 points for More.
The top scorer for the Gaels, guard Daniel Dzierzawski, tossed in 29 points. Kareem Kollins chipped in with 10.
“This was a huge win for us,” More coach Mark Moretuzzo said. “It’s always tough playing those guys. There was so much on the line for us.”
Moretuzzo was somewhat concerned before the tipoff that his team might be tired because of its five games at the Teacher’s Life Silver Fox tournament in Hamilton on the weekend. The Knights won three of those contests against some of the best teams in the province to capture the Roach-Towler division title.
“But the boys played hard tonight and gave everything they had,” the More coach said.
Against the Gaels, Moretuzzo said his squad was led by Ryan Doornick, on offence, and Cordell Cockett, who had specific guarding responsibilities on defence.
“Ryan Doornick put on a show tonight,” Cathedral coach Mark Maga said. “His shooting was great. “When he was younger, we used to play off him a little and let him shoot. But now, we can’t even let him have the ball.”
The Clarkes – Joel and Jaylen — are cousins. Said Moretuzzo: “Jaylen is really stepping up. Especially offensively. And in the last little while his defence is making him a complete player. Joel (Grade 12) is one of the best ball handlers in the league. He’s very dangerous. The ball is in his hands probably 90 per cent of the time.”
The Gaels wind up their schedule with a another challenging contest Thursday against the St. Jean de Brebeuf Braves. A Cathedral win and a More loss would give the Gaels second place based on point differential in their two meetings.
“If we don’t pick it up, it will be a short post season for us,” Maga said. “We’re at a low point in our season. We’ve fallen apart in the last two games. It’s the mental part of it.
“We just lost focus. We started playing for ourselves rather than playing as a team.”
Playoffs begin Tuesday (Feb 11). All seven teams qualify. The second-place finisher plays host to seven, three takes on six and four faces five.
“We’re starting to put it together now,” Moretuzzo said. “We just needed to take a little more time than the other teams to gel. Like I told the guys, it doesn’t matter until February and the playoffs.”
Semifinals are Feb. 13 with the league championship scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 20 at 7:30 p.m. at McMaster University’s Burridge Gym. It’s part of a HWCAA midget/junior/senior boys’ basketball tripleheader finale, beginning at 3:30 p.m.