FAIRFIELD — A couple of weeks ago, just before this recent positive surge that has permeated the Sacred Heart men’s basketball team, head coach Anthony Latina renewed his players’ emphasis on the Pioneers’ core values — being mentally and physically tough and having a “team-first” mentality.

If SHU was going to make a strong run at finishing in the upper half of the Northeast Conference standings, it needed to make those values its primary focus.

So far, so good.

Sacred Heart won its fourth straight game, evening its NEC record at 7-7 and inching closer to the .500 mark (12-15) for the season after a convincing 77-62 victory over Central Connecticut on Saturday afternoon at the Pitt Center. SHU will look to close out a four-game homestand with another win Thursday night against Fairleigh Dickinson.

“We’re very pleased with where we’re at now,” Latina said. “Our defense has gotten a lot better. Some of it is personnel, some of it is focus. It’s still not where we want it to be but we’re playing good stretches. It was either start defending better or get used to losing, and they (the players) didn’t like that option.”

SHU’s defense did more than enough against the Blue Devils, who fell to 5-20 under rookie coach Donyell Marshall, the former UConn great. CCSU jumped out of the gates quickly, taking a 12-10 lead as Mustafa Jones scored 10 points in the opening six minutes — only to fall silent, failing to score in the last 13:29. In fact, there was a nearly 10-minute stretch in the first half when Central managed just 10 points as Sacred Heart got into gear and opened a 33-20 lead.

“I think that we thought it was going to be easy,” Marshall said. “Not only (Jones) but the team. We got out to a lead and I think they thought they (SHU) would just fold over and lay down. That’s not the case. Sacred Heart is fighting for home-court advantage in the NEC; they’re not going to give up. They have a very, very good player in Quincy McKnight, and we were fortunate that he didn’t get off the way he usually does.”

Saddled with foul trouble, McKnight played just 18 minutes — his lowest total of the season — and managed 11 points. But McKnight got a lot of help as Sean Hoehn scored 17 (making five 3-pointers), Matej Buovac scored 13, Mario Matasovic added nine and De’von Barnett eight.

“We need guys to feel good about themselves. We’re seeing different guys emerge,” Latina said. “Our biggest strength … obviously, we don’t have Cane Broome, but our depth of talent, one through nine or one through 10, a different guy can give you numbers every night. We have a lot of guys that can step up in certain situations. That makes us dangerous.”

“Q is always going to get his, he barely played tonight and he still scored double figures,” said Hoehn, a sophomore guard. “He’s going to score. But with other guys stepping up, we’re all capable of helping out.”

Sacred Heart led 39-30 at halftime. A 10-0 run, highlighted by 3-pointers from McKnight and Charles Tucker early in the second half, pushed the Pioneers’ margin to 52-36 with 14:52 to play. Overall, SHU hit 13 of 23 3-pointers (a sharp 56.3 percent) and shot 47.1 percent from the floor for the game. Over those last 15 minutes, CCSU never got the margin under double figures.

“This has been good for us. We’ve definitely picked it up defensively,” McKnight said. “That had been a big struggle for us. But we’ve definitely become more competitive in practice. Everyone’s been going after it, working really hard in practice and guys have been playing to their potential.”

SHU has four NEC games left — Thursday vs. FDU, next Saturday at LIU Brooklyn, on Feb. 23 at St. Francis (Pa.) and Feb. 25 at Robert Morris — and will likely need to win three or four to have a shot at finishing in the top four.

“We would love to play an NEC game in front of our fans,” McKnight said. “We haven’t had the greatest of crowds this season but when they do come to the games, they show a lot of love for us.”



CCSU (5-20)

Jones 7-12 0-0 14, Pierre 0-2 2-2 2, Nehls 4-10 2-2 12, Batiste 2-4 2-2 6, Cumberlander 3-9 5-6 12, Marshall 1-1 0-0 2, Whittingham 3-6 2-4 8, Kay 0-0 0-0 0, Seymour 0-0 0-0 0, Anderson 0-0 0-0 0, Bowles 2-7 2-2 6, Williams 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-51 15-18 62.


Lopez 2-8 2-2 6, Matasovic 3-6 2-2 9, McKnight 4-7 1-2 11, Tucker 2-3 2-2 7, Hoehn 5-8 2-2 17, Barnett 3-6 2-3 8, C.LaRose 0-0 0-0 0, Buovac 3-8 4-4 13, Walton 0-0 0-0 0, Robinson 1-2 0-0 3, Radz 0-0 0-0 0, Montague 1-3 1-2 3. Totals 24-51 16-19 77.

Halftime — Sacred Heart 39-30. 3-Point Goals — CCSU 3-12 (Nehls 2-6, Cumberlander 1-4, Bowles 0-2), Sacred Heart 13-23 (Hoehn 5-6, Buovac 3-8, McKnight 2-3, Tucker 1-1, Robinson 1-2, Matasovic 1-3). Fouled Out — None. Rebounds — CCSU 29 (Jones 6), Sacred Heart 28 (Lopez 7). Assists — CCSU 12 (Batiste, Cumberlander 3), Sacred Heart 14 (McKnight, Tucker 3). Total Fouls — CCSU 18, Sacred Heart 18. Att: 603 (2,062).