Baruch College men’s basketball team advanced to the CUNYAC semifinals for the third consecutive year.
After bulldozing the John Jay Bloodhounds to end the regular season, the two sides squared off again in the quarterfinals. The rematch featured 16 lead changes, matching 3-pointers and clutch free throws in the final minutes. Baruch prevailed 67-58 in coach John Alesi’s 100th career win, earning a spot in the semifinals versus the top-ranked College of Staten Island Dolphins.
The Dolphins entered City College’s Nat Holman Gymnasium with a pristine 16-0 2016-17 conference record that includes two single-digit victories against the Bearcats and a 13-game winning streak. Sophomore co-captain Bryler Paige opened the contest with a 3-pointer and Alesi quickly called a timeout after the team was down 11-5. Following, William Sixsmith answered with a 3-pointer of his own, but the Dolphins’ defense limited the Bearcats in the paint for the entire game.
CSI’s players followed their defensive assignments, rarely faulting in effort and fundamentally sound throughout the match. As for the Bearcats, once junior co-captain Chimaechi “Chima” Ekekeugbor drew two fouls within one minute, Alesi opted to sit him in favor of freshman Allen Villar eight minutes into the half. A scoring drought ensued as neither side could find the bottom of the rim.
With Chima on the bench, the Bearcats leaned on Villar for buckets, but the big man failed to capitalize on a number of opportunities. CSI consistently moved the ball on offense, blew past defenders and vacuumed rebounds off the glass. An emphatic dunk by CSI’s Kevon Murphy set the Bearcats behind 38-18 at the half.
Alesi chose to start Doyin Isaac over Jack Sixsmith in the second half as Baruch was in dire need of a scoring punch. Jack usurped Isaac as the starting point guard halfway through the season as his mentality as a facilitator better complemented the starting five. His attack-first mindset provided a needed edge off the bench and helped to either maintain a lead or spark a comeback.
The Bearcats, led by Isaac and Paige, hounded the Dolphins in an intense half-court press to start the second half. Isaac finished on a crafty inbounds play, which was followed by a transition 3-pointer by senior Dwayne Brydie, forcing the Dolphins to call a timeout. Paige and his fellow Bearcats pestered the CSI backcourt the instant they crossed half-court and never relented. The flustered Dolphins turned the ball over multiple times, giving Baruch ample chances to pull off the upset.
Ensuing, Chima, who faced double-teams all game, pump-faked, maneuvered around two defenders and laid it in while drawing a foul. The free throw rolled in to bring the Bearcats within 12, but CSI never took its foot off the accelerator. The Dolphins barreled through Baruch during an 8-0 run fueled by transition baskets and an impregnable defense. Try as they might, the Bearcats could not slash through the phalanx of long arms established by CSI, forcing the underdogs to take contested jumpers that routinely fell flat. The Dolphins’ fluid, efficient offense was a stark contrast to the Bearcats’ sputtering, ineffective efforts. Baruch shot 28.3 percent from the field, 33 percent from behind the arc and 60 percent from the free-throw line. The Bearcats’ inability to score, paired with a leaky defense, further illuminated the disparity between the two teams. Nevertheless, Baruch displayed resiliency and competitive pride until the final whistle.
Following a missed 3-pointer, Paige sprinted up court and dished the ball to Chima, who converted two free throws after drawing a shooting foul. Baruch’s nonstop pressure gave them the edge in the turnover battle and on the fastbreak, with Isaac draining a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 13 with just under seven minutes to play. After a CSI timeout, Isaac stripped the ball from Frank Schettino and rose up for a three, but his shot rimmed out. He and Brydie failed to connect on jumpers during Baruch’s next possession, but Villar battled in the paint for back-to-back offensive boards and laid it in. With time winding down, Alesi substituted Brydie for William on defensive possessions and swapped the wing players when Baruch had the ball. The rotation accentuated both of their skill sets—William’s sharpshooting and Brydie’s tenacious defense. After another CSI timeout, the Bearcats clamped down on defense, chased their assignments and grinded for 25 seconds only to see Vincent Dacunto rattle in a three. An uncontested transition layup put the Dolphins ahead 18 points with three minutes remaining. At that point, time was their worst enemy. Baruch intentionally fouled CSI in the waning seconds in order to stop the clock, get the ball back and heaved desperation threes. Schettino converted three of his final four free-throw attempts enroute to a triple-double as CSI sealed the victory 71-54.
Losing to the eventual champs brings no solace to the Bearcats. The team has gone from CUNYAC champion in 2014-15, to losing in the title game, to falling in the semifinals. Another offseason of cultivating talent and honing their skills will hopefully be the recipe for bucking this trend.