On a night where there was no shortage of energy in The Vanguard School’s tight quarters, the hosts made a couple plays against Tri Peaks League foe St. Mary’s on their home court Friday that helped the Coursers capture momentum and a 89-79 win over the visiting Pirates.
The stands were filled well before the varsity games tipped, leaving some standing along the baselines or tucking into corners of the gym.
“The crowd was crazy. It gave us a lot of adrenaline,” Vanguard junior Joe Padilla said. “I think it just helped us play faster, play smarter.”
As the 168 combined points shows, it was an up-tempo affair with each side producing a couple big runs.
Vanguard (5-2) made the first run, and Padilla made the first play to really put the energy on the Coursers’ side. Vanguard’s leading scorer Seth Fuqua made a couple free throws to make it 9-2 early before Padilla drained a half-court shot as the buzzer sounded, giving Vanguard a 27-15 lead after one quarter.
“I saw 3, 2, 1 … I just chucked it,” Padilla said.
The Coursers’ advantage grew to 14 midway through the second, but St. Mary’s (6-3) produced a 12-0 run, aided by the first of four technical fouls in the period.
Fuqua and Nique Clifford, the Coursers’ second-leading scorer, helped Vanguard to a 45-36 halftime advantage.
Despite returning to the lockerroom with 10 points, Fuqua ditched some preventative taping on his shooting hand at the break.
“I wasn’t extremely happy how I was performing for the team in the first half,” Fuqua said.
“It’s all good now.”
Fuqua scored in the middle of the third to make it 56-45 before Pirate junior RayShawn Dearmon scored six straight followed by a Connor Timmins bucket that made it a one-possession game.
“We just don’t have that killer part in us that as a coach we’d like to have, but we don’t have the roll over and die part either,” said Vanguard coach Joe Wetters who picked up his 100th win Friday. “They know that they have the skills at the end if it’s close that they can finish it out.”
The Coursers finished it off with the help of one more back-breaking play.
Clifford, who finished with a game-high 25 points, drove to the basket with a little more than four minutes left and finished a ferocious one-handed dunk over a St. Mary’s defender to make it 75-65.
“It just brings back energy because sometimes we get down or something if they’re scoring a lot,” said Clifford of the big plays. “It just brings us back into our focus and shows what we can do, how we’re supposed to play.”
It was a play that showcased the springy, 6-foot-4 junior’s growth.
“He’s gotten so much better in the last six months,” Wetters said. “I think that just his mentality of attacking the rim has gone from zero to 100.”
The dunk figuratively and literally turned off the lights on St. Mary’s as the shuffling of packed bodies saw the lights inadvertently shut off twice in the fourth quarter.
The Pirates closed within six a couple times late behind a pair of 3-pointers from freshman Sam Howery, who shared a team-high 17 points with senior Eddy Ferrara Jr. After one of those triples, the St. Mary’s students tried to capture the last bit of energy with a “He’s a freshman,” chant before ultimately coming up short.
“It was a fun game. It was really competitive,” Fuqua said. “They’re a really strong team in our league, so I give them credit, but tonight we got the job done.”
Fuqua finished with 24 points, while Padilla added 17.
Dom Hartman and Luke Stockelman added 11 apiece for St. Mary’s.
Following Friday’s win and a 1-2 showing against heightened competition in a Florida tournament where all three of the Coursers’ games were decided by four points or less, Vanguard players talked openly about a deep run at state.
“Two words, golden ball,” Padilla said. “That’s what we want.”
And that is fine with their coach.
“Shoot for the sky, that’s what they’re taught here at Vanguard is to be your best self. If we fall short, we fall short, but we’re not going to be satisfied just getting to a certain point this season,” Wetters said.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with shooting for the stars.”