By Brian Falzarano
OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Stevenson took its first steps into a brave new men's basketball world on Oct. 15, its first day preparing for its first season in the Middle Atlantic Conference's Commonwealth Conference.
To do so, the Mustangs needed to leave the disappointment of going 6-19 in their final season as members of the Capital Athletic Conference in their collective rearview mirror.
So far, so good: Although its season-opening 82-65 victory over Gallaudet in the second game of Saturday's second day of the inaugural Hoopsville National Invitational Classic came with the stretches of uneven basketball expected in a season opener, the new-look Stevenson pulled away to ensure its past would not be prologue in its 2012-13 opener.
“It definitely feels like a fresh start being in a new league and our coach (Gary Stewart) being in his second year,” said senior forward Brett Burrier. “The whole deal with being in a new conference, it feels like a fresh start.
“Last season is pretty much erased from our minds.”
The new Mustangs surfaced here and there, but ultimately was on full display over the final 8:55 after a Gallaudet squad beginning a new era of its own under first-year coach Brendan Stern pulled within 67-61. Between the bench play (36-10 edge in scoring), the balance (nine players scored, with Burrier's 22 leading four double-digit performers) and imposing its style of play, the stretch run provided a peek of just what Stevenson could ultimately become.
Hoopsville Classic schedule
All times Eastern
After a bumpy first season as the Mustangs' bench boss, Stewart bolstered his roster by adding freshman guard Tyrus Costly, who debuted with seven points and two steals in 14 minutes, as well as two promising juniors in guard Kelly Davis (12 points in 13 minutes) and 6-8 center James Milton (10 points, 7 rebounds).
And the player Stewart says might be his best — high praise considering Burrier's considerable talent — probably will not see game action for a couple of weeks, a 6-7 senior forward named Solomon Tate who transferred in from Division II Ohio Valley, because of injury.
“From a coaching standpoint, we've got more depth. We've got a variety of different places we can go to score the ball,” Stewart said. “We've got more components to our game. We do have some maturity. And we have some guys that are committed.”
Burrier might be the most visible because of his status as Stevenson's returning leading scorer, but the senior defers credit to senior center Andrew Bishop and junior forward Stefon McCray (10 points, 8 rebounds), who he called “born leaders.”
Between the seniors, the other returnees and even the newcomers, the Mustangs forged a bond Burrier called “night and day” compared to 2011-12. Some teams experience chemistry issues not because of personality conflicts, but simply because personalities and styles of play never quite mesh.
This said, it is hard to credit a Stevenson turnaround based off a 40-minute snapshot in which it shot 58.9% from the floor and turned 21 Gallaudet turnovers into 29 points, which Stern credited as the difference in the game, saying, “When we tried to keep up with them and play fastball, we got into some trouble.”
Not Stevenson. A win Sunday against UMass-Boston will put the Mustangs at 2-0, a perfect start for team distancing itself from last season's disappointment.
UMass-Boston's Florida imports
Until nearly a month before a freshman season that saw him earn D3hoops.com Northeast Region and Little East Conference Rookie of the year accolades, Vinny DeLucia leaned toward attending NAIA St. Thomas University near his Miami, Fla., home.
What it took was an 11th-hour visit to UMass-Boston and a sales pitch from Charlie Titus, the 37th-year coach who is in four Halls of Fame, to convince him to ship off to Boston.
With DeLucia leading a contingent of three Florida and five non-Massachusetts players, the Beacons are just beginning to look the part of a Little East contender. It is a credit to Titus' ability to expand his recruiting base outside of the greater Boston area, with three Louisiana players also on his roster.
“It's good, it's a change of scenery,” the six-foot sophomore said. “I have a brother (Michael) who went to Springfield College. And my mother loves Boston.”
Before taking his talents north and scoring nine points across 17 efficient minutes of an 87-71 victory over Franciscan in Saturday's first game of the Hoopsville Classic, DeLucia played at Sagemont Upper School with former Syracuse and current Boston Celtics rookie Fab Melo and Indiana University forward Will Sheehey.
“His coach (Adam Ross) actually made contact with me about another player on his team,” Titus recalled. “Vinny was going someplace else and I called him and said, 'Hey, you might like this.'”
The Floridian who helped the Beacons own a commanding 62-26 edge on points in the paint, however, was recruited by a player previously on Titus' roster. Sophomore Brian Clarke, who flashed promise as a freshman, learned about UMass-Boston from junior center Mbara Cisse, who graduated Everglades High School a year ahead of the powerful reserve forward who contributed game highs of 19 points and 11 rebounds against an inexperienced Franciscan frontline.
“He said, 'Come help,' so I said OK,” Clarke said. “It's just a good fit for me.”
Between Clarke, Boston native and junior-college transfer Rahshjeem Benson (18 points, 11 rebounds), and freshman swingman Jahleel Moise (16 points), the Beacons turned back the upset bid of the Barons, who led in the first half and climbed within 63-60 in the final nine minutes before the New England school converted consistently down low after missing several easy lay-ups early to extend the Ohio school's losing streak to 27 games — with all but three coming by double-digit outcomes.
“I felt that we competed and we responded when we got down,” Franciscan coach John Lamanna said. “We just ran out of gas.”
Meanwhile, UMass-Boston stepped on the pedal down the stretch after a disjointed early performance that gave the Barons hope of ending one of the nation's longest losing streaks, thanks in part to its two Floridians.
How to improve for Sunday’s tip-off against host Stevenson at 2 p.m.? “More energy from the start,” DeLucia said. “We came out really sluggish from the start. At halftime it was time to turn it up. And we made it very clear at halftime.”