With star point guard Noah Hutchins nursing an injured foot back to full strength, his Park School teammates proved they could hold up against a strong local challenge without him.
The News’ No. 1-ranked large school stifled fifth-ranked St. Francis in a 47-34 victory on Thursday night in Athol Springs. Park parlayed a methodical offensive approach with disciplined defense to overcome the absence of Hutchins, the returning All-Western New York selection recently named a finalist for the New York State Mr. Basketball award.
It wasn’t the most elegant performance by the Pioneers (16-2, 8-0), who were playing for the third time in three nights. But coming down the stretch in the “no nights off” Monsignor Martin A division, the defending New York State Federation Class A champions currently ranked No. 2 in the state didn’t need to score any style points to win their 17th straight against Western New York foes dating to last season.
“We’d rather have an ugly win than a pretty loss,” said sophomore point guard Keonjay Carter, who ran the offense in Hutchins’ stead and finished with 14 points, five rebounds and two assists. “We knew we had to come play tough, play great on the defensive end, take care of the ball on offense, and just play our game.”
Senior center Ebuka Nnagbo controlled the interior, contributing 11 points and 17 rebounds. Sophomore swingman Caleb Hutchins had nine points, six rebounds and three assists, while sophomore guard Desmond Davis took Noah Hutchins’ place in the starting lineup and added eight points with five rebounds.
“It’s not easy, because we are always relying on Noah to do everything,” Nnagbo said. “He makes basketball look easy. Because right now, everything looks hard.”
Hutchins said he is feeling close to recovered from a torn ligament in his foot. The injury, initially thought to be a sprain, has bothered him since last season. He sat out two games last week, including Park’s loss to Albany Academy in a Federation champion game rematch, but returned this week to play in victories against St. Mary’s and Bishop Timon-St. Jude.
“I’m doing good,” said Hutchins, who was in uniform Thursday night and participated in pregame and halftime warmups. “I was going to try to play after the first quarter, but coach said, ‘Let them handle it. They can do it.’”
While the St. Francis student fans chanted, “We want Noah,” Hutchins offered enthusiastic support from the bench, jumping out of his seat several times to celebrate a good play, offer his teammates instruction and lobby the officials.
“A lot of times we take teams for granted when I’m in the game,” Hutchins said. “They knew they had to step up today and play. And I was proud of them, for sure.”
Hutchins also gained a new perspective from the sideline.
“I know what they are capable of now, so I can keep pushing them,” he said. “I think when I’m in the game, I don’t bring as much energy as I did just now. Now I see that I have to bring that on the court as well.”
Park coach Rich Jacob said that “if at any moment we needed,” Hutchins, “he would have been there. It’s good to see, for once, that his team had his back, as often as he has been there for their back.”
Without their pacesetter, the Pioneers slowed their tempo, working the 30-second shot clock on most possessions.
“There is no question we have a different personality without a great player like Noah Hutchins in the game,” Jacob said. “I thought tonight we made some very good decisions and we were more composed on the offensive end.”
Park was even better on the defensive end, holding St. Francis to a season-low scoring total. The Red Raiders made only eight field goals, six after the opening minutes, three in the second half and one in the fourth quarter.
“It was all about being patient and containing them on defense and not being in a hurry to steal the ball,” Nnagbo said.
St. Francis (12-8, 6-4) entered the night averaging nearly 64 points. The Red Raiders had scored more points (36) in each half of their 80-79 overtime loss at Park on Jan. 8, the toughest test the Pioneers have faced against a local opponent this season.
Lucas Theisen led St. Francis with 15 points. Of the Red Raiders’ 14 second half points, Theisen scored 10, including all eight in the fourth quarter.
“We couldn’t put the ball in the hole for some reason,” St. Francis coach Brian Ferris said. “We make eight field goals in an entire game, we aren’t going to beat anybody, with or without Noah.”
Ferris credited Park’s offensive game plan with getting St. Francis out of rhythm.
“Playing defense for 30 seconds every possession is tough,” Ferris said. “They slowed that game down and took the air out of the ball and caused us to get a bit anxious on defense.”
Both teams return to action Saturday in the Centercourt Classic at Villa Maria College. Park will play against Irondequoit, the reigning Section V champions ranked No. 20 in the state in Class A, at 5:30 p.m. St. Francis will meet undefeated Olean, the No. 1 team in the state Class B rankings and No. 2 team in the WNY small schools poll, at 3:30.