Monday, May 19, 2014

A Year In Review: Saint Peter's

Even with a seventh-place finish in MAAC, John Dunne and Saint Peter's still managed to enjoy most successful season since winning conference championship in 2011. (Photo courtesy of Big Apple Buckets)

For some reason, Saint Peter's University is the forgotten man when it comes to local college basketball programs.

Maybe it's the fact that the Peacocks are always in the shadows, from their Jersey City location just down the Turnpike from Seton Hall, or the recent success from fellow metropolitan area and conference rivals Manhattan and Iona. Maybe it's the fact that a select few appreciate head coach John Dunne's ability to always take unheralded prospects and coach them into deceptively strong players. Either way, nothing can take away from the fact that Saint Peter's is back on the upswing after their 14-17 season, the best effort for the Peacocks since their unlikely 2011 MAAC championship.

"Certainly, we were proud of the way we stuck together, overcame some adversity with some early close losses and a tough start," Dunne told us shortly after his season came to a close at the hands of eventual conference champion Manhattan. "To win our last seven of ten, to win a MAAC tournament game, it's going to give us a lot of confidence going into next year."

A 4-7 record through December, highlighted by an overtime victory at Seton Hall did little to convince the nationwide audience of Saint Peter's potential, but anyone who observed the program closely could see the Peacocks arriving at a precipice of greatness.

"Obviously, it was exhilarating to beat Seton Hall, and the way that we beat them too," Dunne said, recounting the three-pointer by Desi Washington to steal a win from the Pirates in the waning seconds of overtime. "I think it gave us an example for us to fall back on and say 'hey, this is a team we can beat if we hang in there.'"

A combined 30 points per game from Washington; whose flair for the dramatic also returned three last-second wins against Fairfield, and Fordham expatriate Marvin Dominique, whose size and rebounding ability provided Dunne with a frontcourt weapon he had not seen since his championship season three years ago. Together, the two kept the Peacocks in contention in their first MAAC game of the 2014 calendar year, a 74-62 loss to Manhattan that was much closer than the score let on.

"I don't think we thought we could win that game," Dunne intimated, "but mentally, we had come such a long way over two months."

Within the next two months, Saint Peter's had come even further, scoring a pair of upsets against conference kingpins Quinnipiac and Rider before ending a five-game losing streak with home victories against Siena and Monmouth, following those up with a road showing at Iona that saw the Peacocks battle Tim Cluess and the Gaels down to the wire, tying the game with less than 10 seconds in regulation before A.J. English's buzzer-beater.

Regardless, Saint Peter's returns almost everyone from last year's team, with only Chris Burke, a freshman on the MAAC championship team of 2011, graduating. That means Washington, Dominique, and soon-to-be sophomore point guard Trevis Wyche will all be back at the Yanitelli Center next season, leading a team into battle that could ultimately secure a top five seed and a first-round bye in next year's MAAC tournament, which once again returns to Albany.

The last time a team this experienced took the court for Saint Peter's, you ask? The 2010-11 season, with Wesley Jenkins, Ryan Bacon and Jeron Belin leading the charge as the Peacocks knocked off Fairfield and Iona on consecutive nights to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995. A trip to the field of 68 may not be what the experts predict going into this season, but with most of the conference getting younger, a noticeable upward mobility is certainly in the cards.

"I just think you're going to see a confident team," Dunne commented, "a team that knows how to defend, knows what you have to do to win games and what it takes to win. I thought we did that the last third of the season, but at the end of the day, our core is back and I think they'll have the confidence to be able to win close games right from the start."

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