Here in the Diocese of Brooklyn, we are lucky to have two Division I men’s basketball programs – not to mention a competitive Division III team from St. Joseph’s College Brooklyn, Clinton Hill.
The overall program histories for St. John’s University, Jamaica, and St. Francis College, Brooklyn Heights, have traversed much different paths.
St. John’s has been a stalwart of the Big East Conference since its inception. The school has made 29 trips to the annual NCAA Tournament, including two appearances in the Final Four and a 1952 berth to the national championship game.
On the other hand, St. Francis College remains one of four original Division I teams in the country to have never played in the NCAA Tournament since it began in March 1939. The Citadel, Charleston, S.C.; the U.S. Military Academy (Army), West Point, N.Y.; and the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Va., share this unfortunate distinction.
I did some digging to compare the head-to-head matchups between St. John’s and St. Francis over the years. In 77 games since the start of the 1907-1908 season – which was less than 20 years since the invention of the game itself in 1891 – St. John’s leads the all-time series, 65-12. For the Terriers, that’s a .156 winning percentage.
Based on the head-to-head record, this matchup is more of a geographic rivalry than an on-court one. However, even with geographic rivalries, there are always memorable moments when the underdog comes through.
A Game for the Ages
If you recall from this column, my girlfriend’s grandfather, Leo Keegan, assisted me in crafting a story this past summer on Msgr. Marty Bannan, the greatest basketball player in the history of Cathedral Prep and Seminary, Brooklyn.
Keegan played college hoops at St. Francis and vividly remembers his contests against St. John’s, as well as the hype leading up to the games.
“They (St. John’s) had the basketball name for a number of years going into the ’40s and ’50s,” said Keegan, 85, a parishioner at St. James Church, Seaford, L.I. “They always got the top Catholic players and good public school players too. The college (St. Francis) got good ballplayers, but they were not the stars of their teams. They didn’t have the national program.”
On Jan. 28, 1954, the St. Francis Terriers capped off an improbable win over the mighty St. John’s Redmen, the team’s mascot before changing to the Red Storm. Keegan was a junior guard on the team and still has the program from that game, which was broadcast on television and was played at DeGray Gymnasium in Downtown Brooklyn, St. John’s home court when they did not play at Madison Square Garden.
St. John’s was coached by Al “Dusty” DeStefano, while Danny Lynch manned the sidelines for the Terriers. Senior Solly Walker, the first black player in St. John’s program history, was the Redmen’s standout, averaging 13.9 pts. and 12.2 rebounds per game that season.
Keegan said his fellow junior guard Frank Dentico got off to a hot start shooting in the game, but an injury in the first half forced him to leave. His replacement, junior Elliot Press, sparked the team to a 67-48 victory. Press won the Catholic Youth Organization M.V.P. trophy, awarded each year to the most outstanding player of the St. John’s-St. Francis matchup.
Not only does Keegan recall which of his teammates stood out during the win, but he also remembers the atmosphere of the gym and the passionate support from Terriers’ fans.
“It was a very small gymnasium, so it was really packed and loud,” he said. “Little gyms can feel like that. The fans were excited. I think there were more St. Francis fans there, and of course they made a lot of noise.”
The victory pushed the Terriers’ record to 14-3. After finishing the regular season 22-4 and winning the Metropolitan New York Conference, the team earned a bid to the National Invitation Tournament. St. Francis reached the quarterfinals, where they dropped a 93-69 contest to the eventual tournament champion College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Mass.
Senior center Hank Daubenschmidt was the Terriers’ star player that season, averaging 20.2 pts. and 13.4 rebounds per game. Team captain and senior forward Jack Walsh contributed 8.0 pts. and 8.5 rebounds per game, while sophomore guard Jim Murphy averaged 9.7 pts. and 3.8 rebounds per game. Keegan chipped in with a game average of 5.3 pts. and 3.0 rebounds.
Tough Opponent for Terriers
The 1954 St. Francis victory against St. John’s marked the 41st time the schools had played. According to Keegan’s program, the Redmen owned a 31-9 record in the previous games.
The statement win seemed like it could change St. Francis’ fortunes moving forward. The Terriers lost to the Johnnies during Keegan’s senior season, but they rebounded the next year with a close 76-73 win on Jan. 21, 1956.
However, starting with the 1956-1957 season, St. Francis lost 19 straight games through the 1974-1975 season. At that point, the teams took a 17-year hiatus before meeting again head-to-head.
The losing trend continued for the Terriers once games against St. John’s resumed during the 1992-1993 season. Since then, the teams have played 16 times, and St. Francis has won just once – a 53-52 victory on Nov. 23, 2004 at Carnesecca Arena.
Highlighting this history is not meant to belittle the St. Francis men’s basketball program. Instead, it’s a look-back at how St. John’s has remained a tough opponent for the Terriers since the two programs began playing each other. It’s also a way to celebrate the notable achievement of the 1953-1954 St. Francis squad.
Though Keegan was quick to point out that his alma mater has yet to make the NCAA Tournament, hope is not lost for the St. Francis Terriers.
Prior to last season, the number of Division I schools to have never made the NCAA Tournament stood at five. Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill., not only made the “Big Dance” for the first-ever time in 2017, but the team also shocked the college basketball world by winning its first-round game.
Even if this doesn’t wind up being the season for St. Francis, it’s bound to happen at some point – in true underdog fashion.
Contact Jim Mancari via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.