STILL THE ONE: East Ascension holds off No. 4 St. Thomas More

Peter Silas Pasqua
East Ascension’s Quinn Coco drives to the basket ahead of St. Thomas More’s Xavier Blackburn in the third quarter of the Spartans’ 54-53 Class 5A regional playoff victory Tuesday night.

LAFAYETTE - East Ascension’s Quinn Coco sank two free throws that would ultimately be the difference with 3.7 seconds remaining to push the Spartans pass St. Thomas More 54-53 in a Class 5A regional playoff upset Tuesday night at the Cougardome.

The Spartans held the lead throughout the second half but were plagued by foul trouble as both Keith Fleming and Ferrell Strode picked up their fourth foul within eight seconds at the start of the third quarter.

“I think our guys played smart,” East Ascension head coach Kenny Almond said. “There were a lot of gutsy plays. I told them to play hard and smart but don’t try to avoid fouling because they would get one.

“The guys are starting to believe. You have to handle (St. Thomas More) early. I thought after the first quarter, even though we were losing, that we did handle that because they really played well early and we didn’t but we didn’t panic. I think we were prepared for all the negative things that could happen and our guys handled it. I am really proud of them.”

Fleming eventually did foul out with 1:15 left to play but Strode was available when Matt Derise nailed an irrelevant 3-pointer at the buzzer to reflect the final tally.

No. 13 seed East Ascension moves on to face District 6-5A rival 12th-seeded Hahnville (22-8) Friday night in Boutte. The teams split during the regular season. St. Thomas More ends the season with a 36-5  overall record. The victory assured the Spartans a second consecutive 30-win season as they advance to the quarterfinals in as many years despite finishing tied for last in district play.

“We have a tough district and everyone of those games were close,” Almond said. “You start to doubt yourself and we did some but they didn’t give up on our system. I think it had a little bit to do us but a lot to do with the opponent.”

Coco was joined by Strode and Gary Weber each with 11 points to lead East Ascension whose roster only lists 10 players. Fleming added eight, while Kerry Weber contributed six, Corey Lane had four and Kenny Varnado chipped in three.

“I think we came out with some pretty good bench play,” Almond said. “Corey and Keith didn’t start but they are really starters. We looked at the film and knew they were good inside. We are not that big but we played big tonight. We thought maybe we had a little something against their guard play and it paid off. I knew we had a shot.”

Xavier Blackburn led all scorers with 13 points for St. Thomas More who sits 16 on the bench. Nick Cortese added 12, while James LeBlanc provided nine and Jordan James had six.

“There is no way that team is a 13 seed,” St. Thomas More head coach Danny Broussard said. “They are a very good team and we knew coming in it wasn’t going to be easy. I knew going in that they had so many shooters. They have five or six guys that can score in double figures any night. Those are hard teams to play in the playoffs when they are balanced like that. That should have been a quarterfinal game.

“For as small as they were, they were rangy with long arms which was deceiving. Their speed was detrimental to our size. Their speed just allowed them to go right past us and on the other end with their pressure they were able to stay in front of us. They are small but they play so much bigger because they are so quick and athletic and they can jump. That is just the way they play. Their speed really played havoc for us.”

St. Thomas More scored the first eight points of the contest capped by Blackburn’s jumper in transition. Gary Weber’s turnaround jumper put East Ascension on the board with 3:45 left to play in the first quarter and Fleming checked in shortly after. Varnado’s pull up jumper from the free throw line preceded LeBlanc’s 3-pointer from the right wing before Fleming’s consecutive spins inside off passes from Gary Weber. St. Thomas More led 13-9 going into the second quarter after Jimmy Vining’s inside bucket.

Blackburn’s dish to Will Norman for a dunk off a steal opened the second frame before Fleming’s baseline drive. Lane checked in with seven minutes left in the half and the Spartans took the lead, 16-15, on Kerry Weber’s set up 3-pointer from the left wing with 6:01 left to play after Coco pulled up. Blackburn’s lane drive and spin inside sandwiched Coco’s free throws before East Ascension took the lead for good on Lane 3-pointer from the left corner during a 9-0 Spartan run that saw Gary Weber and Coco convert lay ups off steals.

“I don’t know how many times we got the rebound and weren’t ball tough with it and gave it right back to them,” Broussard said. “That was the thing about those critical turnovers. They led to direct baskets and that was hard to overcome.”

Strode’s inside bucket with three seconds remaining in the half put East Ascension ahead 30-23 at half-time after LeBlanc’s 3-pointer from the left wing.

James’ free throws opened the second half before Gary Weber pulled up near the free throw line and Strode converted off a steal. Cortese’s 3-pointer preceded Coco’s dish to Gary Weber in transition. LeBlanc’s 3-pointer from the right wing cut it to 37-34 after Blackburn’s inside bucket and one but he was whistled for his fourth foul against Kerry Weber who knocked down two free throws to put the Spartans ahead by five going into the final frame.

“That was a huge call,” Broussard said. “ It gave X his fourth foul and he couldn’t be as aggressive as normal. That charge really could have turned things around. It looked like he was so planted.”

Fleming nailed a 18-foot jumper to open the final frame before Strode’s inside bucket put East Ascension ahead 45-36 after Gary Weber pulled up in the lane. Cortese’s 3-pointer and Blackburn’s inside bucket preceded Strode’s shot down low and jumper. Blackburn’s free throws cut it to 50-46 after Vining’s drive and one. 

Cortese’s putback with 37.1 seconds remaining made it a one possession game. Coco made the front end of a pair of free throws five seconds later but Blackburn’s spun inside with 4.4 seconds remaining. Coco then gathered the inbounds pass from Gary Weber and was fouled by Cortese, his fifth, before hitting the crucial free throws.

East Ascension’s Gary Weber and Kerry Weber battle St. Thomas More’s T.J.?Ventroy, Nick Cortese and Jimmy Vining for a loose ball in the second quarter of the Spartans’ 54-53 victory Tuesday.