Braxton & Holloway: NEC Family Ties


Written by Ryan Peters

 

Greg Herenda was ready to pitch a coveted recruit’s family on Fairleigh Dickinson University. It was the first day home visits were allowed during the 2014 fall recruiting period.

 

For weeks Grant Billmeier, an assistant coach at FDU at the time, had urged his boss to travel down to South Jersey to visit the family of Mike Holloway, a burgeoning star from Arthur P. Schalick High. Billmeier was convinced the burly big man would help the Knights solidify the interior, especially with the program struggling to protect the glass the previous two seasons.

 

Herenda was all ears, but had little idea how long a jaunt to Pittsgrove, NJ would take from campus. As he soon found out, it was more than a modest road trip.

 

“I didn’t really quite tell him how far it was; I just said we have to go see Mike Holloway down in South Jersey,” Billmeier, now a Seton Hall assistant coach, recalls with a chuckle. “So we get in his car and we put in the GPS and he thought it was going to be an hour and a half and it said about two hours and 45 minutes.”

 

An incredulous Herenda may have given Billmeier an earful upon that discovery, but he nevertheless traversed down the turnpike to Salem County, the Garden State’s least populated county known for its dairy farms and sprawling landscape. It was a wise decision, as the home visit laid the groundwork for convincing the Holloway family that FDU was the best place to continue their son’s education, and obviously, his basketball career. The official visit the following weekend sealed the deal.

 

“I took one visit to Fairleigh Dickinson University and I fell in love,” Holloway, now a senior at FDU, said. He cancelled his upcoming trek to Tennessee Tech and verbally committed to Herenda and the coaching staff on the last morning of the official visit. He was done with the college recruiting process before his senior season at Schalick was to begin.

 

Meanwhile, some 10 miles northeast in neighboring Gloucester County, Holloway’s cousin Keith Braxton was wondering why Division I programs weren’t actively recruiting him. He had just finished a standout junior campaign at Delsea Regional High, averaging 20.0 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.7 steals per game. He was instrumental in leading his 21-win team to the Group 3 sectional championship in South Jersey. And yet, there wasn’t a modicum of interest in Braxton at the Division I level.

 

Braxton’s high school coach, Tom Freeman, was surprised but understood why programs were ignoring a player in a lightly recruited area. “We were using him as a high post and at 6-(foot)-3 at that time with not really an outside game as far as shooting the ball, he wasn’t getting the looks,” Freeman explained.

 

It wasn’t that Braxton didn’t possess a capable outside shot, rather it wasn’t needed on a team that already had a bevy of perimeter scorers. Braxton’s unselfish nature, along with his versatility and uncanny ability to attack the rim, was a perfect complement to Delsea’s roster.

 

Braxton kept a positive attitude throughout the arduous recruiting process, while Holloway did his best to elevate his cousin’s profile. “The thing about (Mike) is when he got his offer to Fairleigh Dickinson he was kind of trying to promote me to go there as well,” Braxton said. “Just the fact that he was really looking out for me, really meant a lot to me.”

 

Herenda admits that his staff watched Braxton play at Holloway’s request – they competed together as high schoolers on the Philly BallHawks AAU squad after all – but the timing just didn’t work out. Earl Potts and Marques Townes, both three/four hybrid forwards in their own right, recently signed and were highly regarded. There simply wasn’t a need for a smallish power forward that had yet to display an ability to make 3s.

 

With nothing but Division II offers to ponder in the fall of his senior season, Braxton set his sights on pushing Delsea to the pinnacle of New Jersey high school hoops. But first they had to repeat as the South Jersey, Group 3 conference champions. Doing so would mean getting by their in-conference rivals, Schalick High, which low and behold, rostered one of the best big men the region had to offer, Mike Holloway.

 

——–

 

Well before the high school rivalry, a deep bond between Holloway and Braxton took shape early in their childhood. With their respective families just a short drive away from each other, there was plenty of time to forge a close friendship over various activities.

 

The weekend days of playing sandlot football and basketball in the Holloway’s backyard, followed by feasting on the cooking of Mrs. Holloway, exemplified a childhood that the two cousins fondly look back on.

 

“We were always down to his house on weekends playing basketball, barbecues, watching football, so we were always close at like a young age,” Braxton said, while also mentioning the families’ time spent together in church. “It just eventually grew.”

 

When the two cousins and their siblings approached their teenage years, it became apparent that basketball ultimately was the thing that kept the families together. It’s not that their close connection needed strengthening, but those days on the South Jersey Cyclones, an AAU team for elementary school kids, were the impetus that catapulted their relationship toward basketball.

 

“That was one of the best moments of my young life,’ Holloway admits when reliving his time as on the Cyclones. The “family team” as both cousins affectionately call it, made an early run to a tournament final. After that, both Holloway and Braxton were hooked, leading to an intense rivalry that would capture the interests of South Jersey a decade later.

 

——

 

Delsea and Schalick, two “farmland schools” according to Freeman, weren’t known for their basketball prowess, yet this wasn’t an ordinary period in South Jersey basketball. Both schools were tied atop the Tri-County Conference-Diamond Division standings heading into their much anticipated matchup on January 18, 2015.

 

Schalick jumped out to an early lead on their home court, thanks to 10 first quarter points from Holloway. Delsea, understandably, couldn’t contain the best post presence on the floor as their deficit swelled to 12 points. “I just remember (Mike), he was locked in,” Braxton recalls of his cousin, who poured in 31 points that evening. “He was posting; I think he hit a three or two. He was just a force to be reckoned with at that time.”

While guarding Holloway was certainly problematic, Delsea still possessed more talent and depth. They crawled back into the contest with their long-range moxie, draining 13 triples when it was all said and done. Also serving as a catalyst for the comeback was Freeman’s shrewd defensive adjustment of putting smaller, albeit quicker players (i.e. Braxton) on Holloway. After an early scare, the favored Delsea squad narrowly defeated Schalick, 63-61.

 

The triumph was Delsea’s fifth straight and put the Crusaders in the driver’s seat of the division. They would go on to win seven more games in a row before losing.

 

In the second showdown between the two schools one month later, the Delsea crowd brought their energy as the intimidating 6-man. A Crusaders win would all but guarantee a share of the Diamond Division title. “Just the amount of tension in the gym – we don’t get huge crowds down here for basketball for a regular game – our gym was just rolling with the student body,” Freeman said.

 

For Braxton, the meaning of a championship clinching game was further elevated, for obvious reasons: “It was always just a more important game because we knew we were playing against each other,” he said of those high school battles against Holloway.

 

The undermanned Schalick squad wasn’t intimidated, however, and even held a 2-point advantage late, mainly due to Holloway’s extraordinary 28 point, 12 rebound and 3 block effort. But spectacular play from the Crusader’s Kaleb Morton and Braxton – he also finished with 28 points and 12 rebounds, to go along with 5 assists and 3 steals – was inevitably too much for Schalick to overcome. The Delsea Crusaders went on to repeat as division champions once again.

 

If you include a Delsea win over Schalick when the cousins were juniors, back when Holloway’s older and bigger brother Rashaan was on Schalick, Braxton had bested his bigger counterpart with a 3-0 record in high school.

 

Advantage, Braxton. “I always joke with him… but little did I know that we would come full circle back and play in college,” he said with a chuckle.

 

At the time, however, Braxton still hadn’t realized his goal of getting a Division I basketball scholarship. With only UMBC’s offer as a preferred walk-on out there in the spring of 2015, Braxton opted to take a prep year at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey.

 

While the senior felt it was a gamble worth taking, others in Braxton’s trusted circle, including Freeman, wanted to make sure the star forward had weighed all of his options. “The one thing I did say to him before he left Delsea was ‘Keith, you know you have a ton of Division 2 offers on the table, are you sure you want to go to prep (school) and kind of roll the dice a bit?’” Freeman recalled.

 

Despite the pushback, Holloway gave Braxton his unconditional support. “I thought it was a good risk,” he said, before adding, “only because I knew his work ethic and determination.”

 

The gamble obviously paid off with Saint Francis calling in the spring of 2016 after a productive season at Lawrenceville. After Braxton watched his cousin’s FDU squad win the 2016 conference tournament championship on ESPN, two months later two of the best players South Jersey had to offer would go on to represent the Northeast Conference.

 

——-

 

Holloway and Braxton may be close off the court, but in the heat of competition, “business is business” as Holloway likes to say. In other words, there’s no such thing as family love when a basketball championship and a berth to the NCAA tournament is on the line.

 

That couldn’t have been more evident in the NEC quarterfinals matchup between FDU and Saint Francis last March.

 

In the first half of the elimination game, Braxton back-ironed an open three, but found the ball in his hands after a fortuitous bounce. With the open path to the rim, Braxton did what he excels at – he put the ball on the floor and began confidently striding toward the basket. The only thing between Braxton and an easy finger roll was his 6-foot-7, 245 pound cousin.

 

Family love soon went out the window.

 

In Braxton’s attempt to finish near the rim, Holloway swatted Braxton across his upper body and left arm, making sure the ball wouldn’t find its way through the rim. In that respect, mission accomplished, even if it came at the expense of Braxton’s body.

 

“Yeah, I remember that (play), because my head started hurting a little bit after that,” Braxton admitted when asked about his cousin’s hard foul. To the junior’s credit, he went right to the charity stripe and calmly sank both free throws.

 

Holloway, who promptly turned his back and walked away from Braxton after the foul, was resolute when describing that moment. “I didn’t want to do it, but I had to,” he said. “I said ‘he’s family, but this game is way more important, the NEC championship is way more important.’”

 

The quarterfinal matchup turned out to be a riveting back-and-forth affair with FDU finally pulling away late in the second half. The victory prevented what would’ve been a Saint Francis three game sweep of the Knights. More importantly, FDU advanced to the NEC semifinals – a game they narrowly lost to the eventual champions, LIU Brooklyn – and Holloway improved his high overall record versus Braxton to 2-6.

 

The head-to-head record isn’t something Holloway would like to be public knowledge, but for the time being, the Pittsgrove native has the last laugh.

 

A few months later at NEC Social Media Day in October, Braxton and Holloway shared a proud moment together after being announced to the league’s preseason first team. It came as no surprise to anyone inside the league, given both players current standing.

 

Holloway had crossed the 1,000 points and 500 rebounds threshold before embarking on his senior campaign. Braxton, who recently scored his 1,000 point on, most poignantly, a creative drive and finish in the lane, has the remarkable opportunity to become the first player in NEC history to accumulate 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds if he continues at his current, uber productive pace.

 

Perhaps more importantly, Saint Francis and FDU were #1 and #2 in the NEC coach’s preseason poll, respectively. It’s almost like the two cousins were once again reliving their South Jersey high school battles.

 

“It’s like deja vu,” Holloway confirmed when asked to reflect on the upcoming conference season. “It was like, alright we are coming together, we are two of the premier players in the NEC. We were two premier players on the (high school) circuit and it was like everything was re-happening again for me.”

 

Braxton echoes a similar sentiment. “I see him getting the (preseason) award, he sees me getting the award, and we congratulate each other… Just shows all the hard work paid off and it reminds us of all the games we used to play every day in the backyard.”

 

 

The final chapters of this family saga have yet to be written. The 2018-19 NEC season promises to provide a riveting ending to a worthwhile basketball journey of the Holloway and Braxton boys from South Jersey.

 

#NECWBB FAST BREAK: 1/2/19

STARTING LINEUP: HAPPY NEC NEW YEAR!


Non-conference play came and went (with the exception of one last non-conference tilt on Wednesday night between Mount St. Mary’s and Radford), the holiday breaks are over, and, now, the NEC New Year is finally upon us!

The road to the 2019 NEC Women’s Basketball Championship officially hits high gear on Saturday afternoon with the first of 10 consecutive conference play weekends, which lead right into March and the eventual crowning of a league champion on St. Patrick’s Day.

If we are going to be honest, NEC teams missed on some opportunities during non-conference play in 2018.

Collectively, the league racked up 25 victories over Division 1 opponents, which included teams from the America East, Ivy League, Mid-Eastern, Atlantic Sun, Colonial, Patriot, Big South, Atlantic-10, Metro Atlantic, Western Athletic, and Ohio Valley conferences.

There weren’t any Power 5 wins such as Sacred Heart over SEC member Auburn in 2010 or LIU Brooklyn over the Big 12’s Oklahoma State in 2012, but all NEC teams managed to produce some noteworthy highlights as they put in the preparations for the upcoming conference season.

Here is a brief glance at each team’s non-conference accomplishments and where they stand going into the 2019 conference season…

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Highlighting the 2018 #NECMBB non-conference season

Happy New Year! Welcome to 2019. Didn’t Y2K feel like just yesterday? I know, I’m dating myself.

Come this Thursday, if you can believe it, we finally begin the exciting and fast-moving nine weeks that is the 38th Northeast Conference men’s basketball regular season.

As usually the case, and it looks like no exception this season, it looks like another wild, unpredictable and likely a tight regular season is in store for us all and that is what makes the NEC season so much fun year in and year out.

But before, we dive into the new year and the new NEC season, let’s take a quick look back at some of the accomplishments and highlights of the non-conference season for NEC teams in 2018.

– St. Francis Brooklyn tops all with eight wins

Back in October at NEC Social Media Day, the NEC released their NEC preseason coaches poll and St. Francis Brooklyn was picked to finish seventh.  That preseason prognostication didn’t daunt the Terriers, who came out of non-conference play with eight wins to lead all NEC teams. Three of their non-conference wins came on the road that was also a league-high with wins at Lafayette, Niagara, and Presbyterian.

– Robert Morris’ Josh Williams drops 49 points

In just his third game playing for Robert Morris, senior guard Josh Williams scored an RMU record 49 points against Division III side Mount Aloysius in the team’s home opener at the North Athletic Complex on November 14th.  Williams tied an NCAA Division I single-game record for three-pointers made in a game with fifteen.

Robert Morris as a whole broke the NEC record for three-pointers made in a game by a team with 22.

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#NECMBB Thoughts: The Top 6th-Men and St. Francis Brooklyn’s 3-Point Defense

Chauncey Hawkins

For some players, the glory lies in being part of the starting five. You’re introduced to the crowd. You’re on the floor for the opening tip. You’re part of the group that sets the energy/tempo of the game. You simply can’t beat that adrenaline rush.

But for others, when they are inserted into the game isn’t critical; rather, they yearn to be part of the most critical moments. Because when a coach trusts you enough to play in the final five minutes of the game, that’s when the lights shine the brightest more often than not.

In the Northeast Conference, there have been plenty of primetime performers (sorry to steal your term, Ron!) coming off the bench this season.

I’d like to highlight my “starting five” of these outstanding sixth-men, as they’ve provided stability and spark to their respective second units in the early going. Let’s begin with one of the best two-way players in the NEC!

 

Isaiah Blackmon, Saint Francis U – Rob Krimmel has been careful easing Blackmon into action, and with good reason. The dynamic talent is a year removed from knee surgery, but you wouldn’t know that of late. In his last five games, four of which he came off the bench, Blackmon has averaged 15.2 ppg while shooting 56.3% from the field. Additionally, his elite athleticism appears to be back – he’s been a menace on the offensive glass by grabbing 9.2% of his team’s misses when he’s on the floor. It’s fair to assume Blackmon is rounding into form as the NEC conference season rapidly approaches. It speaks to the program’s depth that Blackmon, who’s started 30 times in his collegiate career and was part of the NEC’s preseason first team in 2017, can serve as an explosive six-man on a team rife with expectations.

 

Joe Hugley, Central Connecticut – When looking at Hugley’s advanced numbers at first glance, it’s hard to believe the junior hasn’t even played in half of the Blue Devils available minutes. But that’s the role Donyell Marshall has tasked Hugley with, partly because Hugley reminds the head coach of himself in the latter half of his NBA career. And so far, Hugley has bought in, scoring in double digits in seven of his last eight games. He’s registered a block in six straight, while corralling at least six boards in 5 of 10 contents. In terms of efficiency, the Maryland native easily possesses the highest offensive rating (118.3) of any NEC player that has a possession rate north of 20%. Hugley’s scoring acumen and energy level clearly has been an asset off the bench, six weeks in.

 

Kaleb Bishop, Fairleigh Dickinson – While the junior is still rounding into form with respect to his scoring, Bishop has registered career highs in offensive rebounding rate (11.8%), defensive rebounding rate (23.7%), and block rate (4.0%) as a junior. Off the bench, the 6-foot-8 forward has grabbed at least six rebounds in eight of tencontests. With the insertion of sophomore Elyjah Williams, Greg Herenda now can afford to make athletic Bishop part of his second unit to serve as the four or five.

 

Malik Petteway, Robert Morris – With an injury riddled junior year behind him, Petteway has provided productive bench play similar in the way that Billy Giles did as a junior during the 2015-16 season. Of course, Petteway and Giles are different power forwards, but there are similarities in their ability to rebound, score efficiently around the rim and providing some rim-protecting capabilities. For Petteway, it’s his defensive acumen and physical presence that affords Robert Morris a proven bruiser down low. His block rate (5.3%, 3rd in the NEC) and defensive rebounding rate (19.5%, 9th in the NEC) are evidence of that.

 

Chauncy Hawkins, St. Francis Brooklyn – Like many freshman, Hawkins needed time to adapt to the rigors and speed of Division I, but once he did, he was off and running. The freshman posted a respectable 98.0 offensive rating in league play last year, so a production boost in 2018-19 shouldn’t come as a surprise. Hawkins has poured at least 16 points in six contests, four of those resulting in Terrier wins. He may not be on the floor at the opening tip, yet Hawkins has provided St. Francis Brooklyn with the necessary pop and versatility off the bench. It’s safe to expect the trio of Hawkins, Glenn Sanabria and Jalen Jordan – the best offensive lineup St. Francis can boast according to Glenn Braica – will play together, especially late in the 2nd half. According to KenPom, that has already happened at least 26% of the time in the Terriers available minutes over the past five games.

 

Speaking of Hawkins, I’ve been fascinated with one key tenet of St. Francis Brooklyn’s philosophy: restricting their opponent’s 3-point attempts.

In the age of the 3-point shot and its increasing use, some programs are making a concerted effort to suppress the opponent’s attempts from behind the arc. The philosophy was a staple of Mount Mayhem under Christian – one of the key attributes is that you take a lot more 3s than your opponent. Makes sense, right? If you are going to lose, why not lose because your opponent made a high percentage of deep 2s, traditionally the least efficient shot in college basketball?

Glenn Braica has excelled at this in recent years and he’s at it again with his 2018-19 Terriers.

Season Opponent 3PA/FGA

(DI Rank)

Opponent’s 3PT%
2018-19 30.6% (14) 30.7% (62)
2017-18 31.7% (20) 34.1% (122)
2016-17 27.3% (4) 36.0% (231)
2015-16 25.4% (2) 33.1% (91)
2014-15 26.5% (8) 36.7% (282)

 

As Ken Pomeroy has demonstrated in the past, it’s much easier to limit a team’s 3-point attempts than to affect their accuracy from behind the arc. Braica’s teams have certainly done the former, finishing in the country’s top 20 over the past five seasons. Despite the Terriers tenacious defense along the perimeter, sometimes their opponents have made a high percentage of their 3-point attempts (see 2016-17 and 2014-15 as an example). But at the very least, it helps when those made 3s aren’t as frequent due to your defense’s suppression techniques.

Is applying this philosophy merely a defensive mindset or does having length, particularly athletic length, and lateral quickness help as well?

In all honesty, Braica doesn’t have an answer nor is he specifically instructing his players to suppress 3-point attempts. The suppression is merely an aftereffect of the Terriers razor sharp focus on defense in practice sessions. Play hard, apply ball pressure, fight through screens and deny passing lanes – all of those fundamentals lead to a tenacious defensive effort that, guess what, limits the number of 3-point attempts their opponent takes. It’s really not rocket science, nor does it require recruiting a certain type of athlete. It appears to be a coaching thing and the Terrier players have clearly bought in.

Right now, a majority of the NEC programs haven’t shot the 3-ball well. While much of that is likely due to the elevated competition, St. Francis Brooklyn may have the upper hand come conference play in limiting their opponents 3-point production. It’ll be interesting to see how this shakes out starting in January!

Stud Running Backs Spearhead NEC’s Banner All-America Showing

 

Two years after AJ Hines became the first-ever Northeast Conference footballer to win a STATS Legacy Award, Duquesne’s highly-decorated running back has teamed up with Wagner’s Ryan Fulse to make more history.

For the first time, both running back slots on the STATS Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) All-America First Team are occupied by Northeast Conference rushers.

Fulse (137.1 ypg) and Hines (120.3), who ranked first and second respectively amongst FCS career rushing leaders active during the 2018 season, led a contingent of six NEC athletes who earned STATS All-America honors.

After averaging 39.1 yards per kick return, Bryant junior Jean Constant joined Hines and Fulse on the STATS All-America First Team.

The three First Team selections are the most ever celebrated by the NEC in the same year.

The 2018 season also marks only the second time ever that the NEC has produced multiple First Team honorees.  Linebacker Christian Kuntz (Duquesne) and safety Lorenzo Jerome (Saint Francis) gave the NEC double representation on the First Team Defense in 2016.

Central Connecticut guard J’Von Brown (Offense) and Wagner outside linebacker Cameron Gill (Defense), both juniors, comprise the NEC’s presence on the Second Team in 2018.

Meanwhile, Saint Francis U senior safety Hakeem Kinard, the leader of the NEC’s top-ranked defense, earned a spot on the Third Team.

For the eighth year in a row, the Northeast Conference garnered multiple STATS All-America selections.

The six honorees mark the NEC’s highest single-season total since 2014.

 

 

ALL-AMERICA ONE-SENTENCE RESUMES

Ryan Fulse, Wagner (First Team Offense – RB)

The Walter Payton Award candidate, who went over 100 scrimmage yards in nine of 11 games highlighted by a 251-yard day at Montana State, paced the nation in all-purpose yards average (177.36) despite not returning a single kick or punt this season.

 

AJ Hines, Duquesne (First Team Offense – RB)

The NEC Offensive Player of the Year, who scored at least one touchdown in all nine of Duquesne’s victories, exceeded 200 yards from scrimmage on four different occasions during the regular season stretch run and did so again in a FCS First Round road win over CAA member Towson.

 

Jean Constant, Bryant (First Team Specialists – KR)

The active FCS career leader in kick return touchdowns (5) averaged a national-best 39.1 yards per run back highlighted by a game-winning 88-yarder at MEAC member Howard in Week 12.

 

Cam Gill, Wagner (Second Team Defense — LB)

The NEC Defensive Player of the Year, who led the NEC with 13.5 sacks, made the second-most tackle-for-loss (24.0) in the FCS and logged at least 2.0 hits behind the line of scrimmage in seven different games including visits to Montana State and ACC member Syracuse.

 

J’Von Brown, Central Connecticut (Second Team Offense — OL)

The 350-pounder protected the NEC’s least-sacked quarterback and started all 11 games at Left Guard for conference’s top-ranked offense, which averaged 6.8 yards per play and 5.9 yards per rush.

 

Hakeem Kinard, Saint Francis (Third Team Defense – DB)

The highly versatile senior safety, who was amongst the NEC’s top-nine leaders in both passes defensed (11) and tackles-for-loss (9.5), spearheaded an SFU defense that ranked seventh overall in the FCS.

 

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