John O’Connell has had plenty of memorable wins in his 32-year career, but No. 600 might go down as one of the sweetest.
In a battle between the top two teams in Florida’s Class 5A, St. Andrew’s overcame an early 15-1 deficit, taking the lead for good with less than two minutes left, to knock off No. 2 Calvary Christian 65-58 and give O’Connell his 600th career win.
“These kids battled back and proved to me they’re real fighters — and that we’re pretty good,” O’Connell said. “I’m really impressed with the way the kids bounced back. I can’t say I knew they had it in them. [They showed] no fear.”
The longtime St. Andrew’s coach, who began his tenure with the program in 1985, hugged his wife and was mobbed by his players in celebration after the game.
“I’m old,” O’Connell said with a laugh as he reflected on the milestone. “600 feels like a long time. You’re bound to accomplish something in 32 years.”
Tuesday’s game lived up to its top-of-the-ticket billing. The Eagles (15-4) stormed out to a 14-point lead less than 3:30 in the game, behind 11 quick points from senior point guard Rasheem Etienne. The Scots (21-1) weathered the storm and cut the lead to seven at the end of the quarter.
Senior guard Anthony Polite, who was held scoreless in the first quarter, began to turn it on in the second, scoring seven of his game-high 28 points to cut the Eagles’ lead to 33-28 by intermission.
Polite, a Florida State signee, gave the Scots their first lead of the game on a 3-pointer with 3:21 left in the third to make it 41-40.
But Calvary Christian didn’t back down. Behind a hot-shooting performance by Etienne, who nailed eight 3-pointers and finished with 26 points, the Eagles and Scots kept exchanging the lead in the fourth.
The gamesmanship between the two stars showed in one sequence in the fourth quarter, where after Etienne drained a three to give Calvary a 53-50 lead, Polite came down on the ensuing possession and calmly hit a trey from the top of the arc to tie it back up.
Calvary Christian cut the lead to one with 50 seconds left, but Polite went 6-6 from the free-throw line in the final minute to help ice the win for St. Andrew’s.
The Scots had two other players in double figures as junior guard Marcus Pelissier scored 13 points and junior PG Jammy Pierre-Louis added nine. For Calvary, 7-foot center Victor Uyaelunmo, a Southern Cal signee, scored 12 points.
While Tuesday’s game was a non-district match-up, the teams could meet in the playoffs, either in the regional quarterfinals or semifinals.
“This is a great win,” said O’Connell. “This has to be one of the best teams I’ve had at St. Andrew’s.”