It’s rare for Darian Bryant, standing 6 feet 4, to have a size advantage while lining up at center for top-ranked St. John’s. The versatile senior typically turns to his midrange game as a means of evening the field, but with O’Connell packing defenders in the paint at times during Sunday’s contest, Bryant had to be a bit more crafty.
After St. John’s knocked down one of its seven three-pointers early in the second half, momentarily shifting O’Connell’s focus to the perimeter, Bryant made his move. The George Washington recruit began flashing and calling for the ball in the suddenly open interior, resulting in 10 third-quarter points and sparking the Cadets to a 66-63 win against the No. 3 Knights in Northwest.
With the victory, the Cadets clinched the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference regular season title, granting them the top seed in next weekend’s tournament.
“After going back and forth in the first half, I felt like the second half could be my time to produce,” said Bryant, who finished with 12 points. “We realized they were switching on every ball screen, so when I had a smaller guy come guard me, I was able to take advantage.”
St. John’s (27-1, 16-1 WCAC) also capitalized on its depth, pushing the tempo on offense while using several defenders to closely shadow senior Melo Trimble. The All-Met guard scored 17 of his 21 points and grabbed seven rebounds in the first half, but the extra effort required to separate from the swarming Cadets left Trimble visibly exhausted.
“We know they don’t play a lot of guys in their rotation, so we tried to up the tempo and keep the pressure on Melo and their guards,” said St. John’s guard Tre Campbell, who finished with 14 points.
After falling behind by 10 points in the first half, the Cadets rallied by spreading the floor behind their sharpshooters and riding the play of Bryant on the interior. Campbell’s third three-pointer of the game stretched St. John’s lead to 56-50 with six minutes remaining, but O’Connell (16-9, 14-3) remained within striking distance behind its offensive rebounding and second-chance opportunities.
A three-pointer from the corner by Dominic Fragala pulled O’Connell within one point in the final minute, but that was as close as the Knights would get.
With the WCAC’s top spot in hand, St. John’s will enter next weekend’s tournament in a different fashion from last year, when it served as the dark horse en route to a title game appearance. But the higher seed hasn’t changed the Cadets’ perspective.
“I wouldn’t say it’s that different,” Campbell said. “I think with what we did last year and with six players going to play in college, we’ve always had the target on us this year. We’ve just got to stay focused.”