Evergreen Park was winless heading into the Immaculate Conception/Westmont Christmas Tournament, yet the Mustangs found themselves less than five minutes away from winning the championship on Monday night.
It would have made for a nice story, but not one that St. Edward guard Joseph French was interested in reading.
So French and the Green Wave wrote a different ending. French and backcourt mate John Butzow combined to score 18 of their team’s 24 fourth-quarter points as St. Edward (14-1) pulled away for a 63-53 victory. The duo shared game-high scoring honors with 16 points.
“They had better guard play,” Evergreen Park coach Pat Flannigan said. “I thought their little point guard [French] was phenomenal tonight, outplayed us, and that was the difference.”
St. Edward coach P.J. White agreed.
“Joe is so quick outside and he can hit shots,” White said. “He’s not a real three-point shooter but he can shoot from anywhere inside the free-throw line. He’s just fast.
The Mustangs (3-6) trailed for much of the first three quarters but took a three-point lead into the fourth quarter and were still ahead 42-40 when they missed a three-pointer and French scored on a pull-up jumper from 10 feet to tie the game with 5:40 remaining.
French, a 5-10 junior, then made a steal and split a pair of free throws.
Evergreen Park retook the lead on a layup by Jacquet McClendon, but French fed Butzow for the go-ahead three pointer with 4:25 remaining.
That prompted the Mustangs to come out of their zone defense and it ended up playing into St. Edward’s hands.
“I think the key for us was they went to a man-to-man at the end and as soon as they did that we started pulling away,” White said. “I think they thought if they went to a man-to-man they could get a few steals and go down the other way, and we went by them and scored and when we didn’t score we dished it off underneath and scored.”
That’s exactly what French does best. He hit another short pullup jumper and then assisted on an inside hoop by Danny Favela for a 50-44 lead. Jordan Brown responded with a three-pointer for the Mustangs but Butzow drained a three off a feed from French, who then made two free throws. Davontae Elam followed with a transition layup to extend the bulge to 57-49 with 1:17 to go.
“That’s pretty much my game, just finishing in the lane,” said French, who also had four assists and two steals. “I took a lot of threes early and they weren’t really falling, so I did realize that I needed to get in the middle to score.”
While Butzow made four three-pointers, the Green Wave actually relies on its deceptive speed to break down man defenses and has multiple offensive weapons.
“We have a lot of guys who can beat them off the dribble, like Davontae and I,” French noted. “We can just take pretty much anybody off the dribble and then we get by them, [opponents] come to help and we just dump it off to our big guys for easy layups, or we can kick it out for easy threes.”
Junior forward Nick Duffy had 12 points, eight rebounds and three assists for the Green Wave, while Elam finished with 10 points and four boards.
Brown and Isaac Matthews each scored 14 points to lead Evergreen Park, which also received 13 points and eight boards from Tony Weathersby.