By Pete Chiodo
The inaurugal Greg Richards ’08 Memorial Tip-off Tournament ended with a bittersweet moment as Allegheny’s head men’s basketball coach Jim Driggs, trying to hide the emotion in his voice, invited all the former teammates, friends and family of Richards — a former Allegheny basketball played who died from cancer in February — onto the court of the David V. Wise Center.
The stands practically emptied as the court filled with those who remember the former Gator captain. And there Driggs presented the tournament championship trophy to the members of Richards’ family who were in attendance.
What made the moment sweeter was, of course, the fact that Allegheny had a championship trophy to give away.
The Gators won their season-opening tourney for the first time since the 2001-02 season by beating Wilmington in the title game, 76-70.
“That’s a big achievement for us,” said Gators junior Ryan Stanko. “And coach told us in the locker room, it was about more than basketball today. I never knew Greg personally. But he’s an inspiration for this institution and our team. And I couldn’t be happier with the group of guys and the way we performed.”
The win gives Allegheny a 2-0 start to the year. Wilmington is now 1-1.
“We had a lot of guys that made some big plays. We made big plays when we had to,” Driggs said. “Wilmington is a good team. They’re from a great league (the Ohio Athletic Conference). They’re much bigger than us. And we really had to value each possession. And I think we did a good job with that.”
Things didn’t start so well for the Gators, however. On Wilmington’s opening possession, Malcolm Heard knocked down a jumper. Then Heard picked off Allegheny’s inbound pass, and slammed the ball into the hoop.
To make matters worse, about a minute later, with the Gators trailing 6-2, sophomore guard Josh Valentic went down in pain with an apparent ankle injury.
“He had a bad ankle sprain,” said Driggs. “Unfortunately that had to happen that early in the game. He’s a key component for our team.”
Wilmington continued to stretch that lead throughout the opening minutes of the game, expanding it to 14-7 at one point.
It was gut-check time for the Gators.
“Last year we lost a lot of close games and a lot of tough games,” said Stanko. “And one thing we preached in the offseason is that we have to be tougher in situations like this.”
And that’s when the Gators’ got hot. Devone McLeod hit a triple. Wilmington’s Tarren Taylor answered with a bucket. But McLeod came back down the court and added a deuce. The Quakers missed a couple jumpers on their end. And Stanko hit a trey to cut Wilmington’s lead to 16-15. Wilmington then turned the ball over, and David DiBernardi buried a triple to give Allegheny an 18-15 lead. Another Quakers turnover allowed McLeod to drive the lane for a basket, making it 20-15. The Gators were off and running.
The two teams battled back and forth the rest of the way through the first and into the second. The score was tied for the last time at 42-42 with 16 minutes to play. But Allegheny went on a six-point run with a lay-in by Stanko, and a pair of free throws and a jumper by McLeod. The Gators were then in charge for the rest of the game.
Stanko ended the night with a 25-point, 12-rebound double-double, hitting five of nine 3-point attempts in the game. He was an all-tournament team selection.
McLeod earned MVP status for the tournament, after scoring 22 points with eight assists against the Quakers.
“Devone made great decisions with the basketball,” said Driggs. “I think he had 13 assists and one turnover for the weekend. And if you get that from your point guard, you’re going to be in a good spot.”
Chris Milon contributed 10 points and six boards for the Gators.
For Wilmington, Heard, an all-tournament team member, scored 21 points and had nine rebounds. Brandon Candella scored 12 points. And Taylor Wellman scored 10 points.