WARREN - When the John F. Kennedy Eagles and St. Thomas Aquinas Knights met earlier this season, the scoreline wasn't too kind for the Eagles.
Kennedy traveled to Louisville, only to be on the wrong end of a 50-point loss. More than one month later in the return leg, the Eagles couldn't reverse the result, but they kept it much closer than their previous meeting, never trailing by more than six until the closing moments in a 56-48 loss at home.
For Kennedy coach Shawn Pompelia, it showed his team's progression, as well as the fact his team is getting healthy at the right time.
"St. Thomas is a very good team," Pompelia said. "We were missing some guys when we went to St. Thomas, and we got beat by 50. We got our key guys back, and we have gotten better."
Tied at halftime, Kennedy (7-13) came out of the break on the initiative, jumping out to a 33-28 lead following a Zachary Usher field goal in the low post at the 5:45 mark. The Eagles held Aquinas (10-11) scoreless until a pair of Sam Pusateri free throws at the 4:46 mark in the third, and the Knights didn't record a field goal until 3:43 remaining in the quarter.
The Eagles' 2-3 zone worked at the time, as the Knights missed their first seven shots of the second half.
"I really liked the defensive matchups that we had," Pompelia said. "We just told them at halftime that we matched up extremely well, we were getting into our spots, we were stopping penetration - we just needed to continue that."
The Knights recovered and exploited the weaknesses late in the third to retake lead and keep the Eagles at bay, as the teams traded baskets to keep it within one until the 5:15 mark in the fourth quarter.
Aquinas attacked the zone from all angles, starting with Austin Hill (who scored a game-high 19 points) and Jacob Paul draining three 3-pointers each. The Knights also found a way inside despite Kennedy's size advantage. They passed into a hole in the middle of zone and once the Kennedy defenders collapsed, they passed to a cutter along the baseline. This happened twice with Frank DiMarzio on the receiving end to give Aquinas a five-point lead with 3:52 remaining in the fourth.
"We tried a lot of different things to attack it, and I think we found a couple of them that were pretty effective for us," Aquinas coach Matt Hackenberg said. "We shot it well from the outside and we also hit the middle and got some drop-off passes for layups. We were kind of scoring all over against (the zone)."
Those two buckets by DiMarzio sparked an 11-4 run by Aquinas to end the game. The deficit forced the Eagles out of their zone, which in turn aided the Knights in wasting the clock and forcing Kennedy into fouling them. The Eagles also struggled from the floor, going 1 of 7 in the final four-and-a-half minutes.
"When it got to crunch time, we couldn't stay out in the zone," Pompelia said. "We needed to guard St. Thomas man, and they're a good penetrating-and-kick team. They play very well together."
Although the loss was a bitter pill to swallow, Kennedy has little time to recover, as the team travels to Howland today in a cross-town rivalry game before starting the tournament early next week. Pompelia said the Eagles will need to come ready to play against the Tigers.
"It's a big rivalry for us," Pompelia said. "We know we're going to Howland and we know they're hungry and we know that they're a D-I school. Bill (Bogan) does a nice job at Howland, so we have to be mentally ready to go there and play."