Monday, March 20, 2023

The Ghosts of St. Francis Brooklyn

I was devastated to hear the news this afternoon that St. Francis Brooklyn is shutting down its athletic programs at the end of the 2023 spring semester.

They have been playing collegiate basketball at St. Francis Brooklyn for more than 100 seasons. Famously, during all of those seasons the Terriers never made the NCAA Tournament. It appears now that they never will.

But to let that stat define the legacy of St. Francis Brooklyn would be a travesty. The school was home to a number of near misses and built the legacy of some amazing players. Players like Jalen Cannon, who was everywhere on the court during his four seasons on Remsen Street from 2011-12 to 2014-15. Cannon is the St. Francis Brooklyn career leader in games played, field goal percentage, defensive rebounds, offensive rebounds, and points. A 6-foot-6 forward from Allentown, PA, he turned the opportunity Glen Braica gave him to play Division I basketball into a globe-trotting professional career.

There were also players like Ben Mockford, who transferred from Iona and became the school's leading three-point percentage shooting leader.

And Brent Jones who was the heart and engine of some of the best teams in Terriers history despite being generously listed at 5-foot-10. He will also forever be the school's career assist leader.

Jones's final season was 2014-15. I took the 2 or 3 train down to Brooklyn Heights to cover the team a lot during that season for my old site NYC Buckets. I would walk into the Pope Physical Education Center and pick up my credential from will call ticket table in the cafeteria next door. The gym was tiny. The Pope Center had a listed capacity of 1,200 fans. KenPom had it as the seventh smallest in Division I. The fans though had a ton of heart. And so did Glenn Braica.

A New Yorker through and through, Braica came to St. Francis to try and bring glory back to a program whose biggest successes came in the 1940 and 50's before the NCAA Tournament became what it is today. Braica though wanted to be the one to break through. He built a winner thanks to some luck, some under-recruited gems like Cannon and Jones, and a tough defensive mindset. That 2014-15 season was the one where he was supposed to break through. The Terriers started 0-5 as they played the difficult non-conference schedule typical of Northeast Conference schools that need to raise funds. But when they beat Columbia right before New Years, I was there. I remember talking to Braica next to the locker room above the swimming pool as he talked about his team that was just about to reach .500. There was hope there. Hope that he had the pieces to finally bring home a title.

He was right. The Terriers went 15-3 in the NEC. They were the class of the league thanks to Jones, Cannon, Amdy Fall's length on the defensive end, Tyreek Jewell's enigmatic offense, and minutes from a promising freshman named Glenn Sanabria. SFNY went legitimately 11 players deep and Braica (sometimes frustratingly) messed with his rotations looking for the perfect group.

As the No. 1 seed, the Terriers played at home throughout the 2015 NEC Tournament. They defeated Brooklyn rival LIU in the quarterfinals and it was clear people were starting to notice. Braica and I weren't talking above the pool anymore. There was an entire room set up for the press conference. The same scene played itself out again after SFNY took out St. Francis PA in the semifinals.

The Terriers welcomed Robert Morris and Andy Toole into the Pope Center for the final Northeast Conference showdown. The Colonials had consistently played second fiddle to another Brooklyn team (LIU) during the early part of Toole's tenure and this was also their chance to make a statement.

And in one of the most heartbreaking and intense games ever played in front of probably more than the official 1,013 listed fans the Colonials defeated the Terriers 66-63. The Colonials led for the entire final agonizing 11 minutes, with the Terriers falling down by as many as 10 points before battling back to make it interesting at the end.

That was as close as St. Francis Brooklyn will ever come to making the NCAA Tournament. There will be no more men's collegiate basketball on Remsen Street (though this was already true as the school moved campuses in the middle of this season). The ghosts of games like that loss to RMU will live at 180 Remsen Street forever.

Braica hasn't had a team nearly that good in his eight seasons since at the helm of the Terriers. Injuries and uncertainty made this season even more difficult, but he was still hopeful at the end. “If we get some of our guys back,” Braica said in the press conference after his team lost in the quarterfinals to future national media darling Fairleigh Dickinson, “we can really be good next year.” Now he'll never get the chance.

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