After 50 years as head coach of the St. Joseph boys basketball team, Vito Montelli could probably draw X’s and O’s in his sleep. An all-star starting lineup featuring standout forward Timajh Parker and lightning-quick point guard James Jennings has made formulating game plans even easier this season.
However, the legendary head coach is still challenged by the task of keeping his players focused, especially with an undefeated record and the state’s undisputed No. 1 ranking hanging over their talented heads.
“It’s hard,” Montelli said. “You can’t make them believe every opponent is a big top-10 team. You just have to tell them that the kids are going to play like hell, and they do in our league. Everybody. So we have to work hard to keep the kids mentally prepared.”
After watching his team use a 29-point first quarter to blow the doors off FCIAC playoff contender Staples, it's safe to say Montelli did his job.
Despite a few innocuous hiccups, the Cadets certainly looked like a team that has its head screwed on straight, racing out to a 22-8 lead and finishing with a 79-61 victory Tuesday night at the Vito Montelli gymnasium.
Parker, a 6-foot-7 senior, led four players in double figures with a game-high 27 points. Parker also had a game-high 12 rebounds and five assists for the Cadets, who led 77-50 late in the fourth quarter before the Wreckers finished on an 11-2 run against St. Joseph’s bench players.
Jennings helped St. Joseph build its big early lead with five 3-pointers in the first half as the Wreckers (6-5 overall, 5-4 FCIAC) inexplicably failed to deny him open space on the perimeter. Jennings finished with 15 points, four steals and a game-high nine assists.
“He’s quick,” said Montelli, whose team is now 11-0 overall and 9-0 in the FCIAC. “It’s really tough to keep up with him. He’s probably, if not the best, one of the top three point guards in the state.”
The Cadets also received a double-double from 6-6 senior forward Patrick Hopkins, who finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds. Talented sophomore guard Quincy McKnight continued to display a solid all-around game with 17 points, six assists and two steals.
Staples actually played as well as it could have hoped, getting 26 points from senior guard Mike Argosh, a career-high 25 from junior forward Peter Rankowitz (five rebounds, three assists) and solid play out of junior point guard James Frusciante, who dished out seven assists.
The Wreckers simply didn’t have enough firepower to stay with the Cadets, and got no closer than 12 points after the first quarter.
“They’re extremely talented and they played well together tonight,” said Staples head coach Colin Devine, a Trumbull native. “They hit the offensive and defensive glass hard and that led to them getting their early offense. There’s a reason why they’re No. 1 in the state.”
Staples did a nice job breaking St. Joseph’s press in the first quarter behind the play of Frusciante and fellow guard Vasili Tziolis, but could not convert its passing into points, missing on a number of easy looks in the opening minutes.
Rankowitz, who accounted for 12 of his team’s 15 first-quarter points, was really the only one scoring.
Devine didn’t see it as a failure by his team, but a success by the Cadets, who pushed the tempo so high and fast, the Wreckers couldn’t keep up.
“We’re not used to that pace. They play so fast, and we’re not used to that in practice,” Devine said. “They speed you up and force you to make mistakes.”
Argosh, the leading scorer for the Wreckers, got off to a slow start with just three points in the first half and five through most of the first three quarters.
Argosh finally got things going with five points in the final minute of the third before exploding for 16 in the fourth.
Despite the loss, Devine is confident the effort will help the Wreckers down the stretch as they fight with a horde of 10 teams for the final six FCIAC playoff spots.
“I thought we played hard and did some good things,” Devine said. “It was a good effort, and we’re going to continue to work hard to make the FCIAC’s.”
The only real negative for St. Joseph was some lackluster play on defense and careless ball-handling in the second half, which helped the Cadets ring up a total of 22 turnovers.
“I’m pleased with the way my seniors played, especially my three senior captains,” Montelli said. “But we were a little sluggish defensively. The press got us the lead, but we didn’t execute it the way we should have.”