By Tom Robinson
SCRANTON – The first month of the AAU basketball season is providing Clay Basalyga with an understanding of how Dallas was the last District 2 boys team standing in the coronavirus-shortened high school season.
Austin Finarelli and Nick Nocito, the sophomore starting backcourt combination on the team that was in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association Class 5A state quarterfinals at the time the event was halted, have helped Basalyga’s team find success this summer.
“It’s unbelievable that a school can have two guards like that in the same class,” Basalyga said.
Finarelli was the team’s leading scorer and Nocito finished one point behind him while hitting a game-winning shot when the NEPA Elite Basalyga 17U boys team posted the best record of the Summer Showdown at Riverfront Sports, going 4-0.
The two guards broke into the starting lineup together at Dallas early in their freshman season and, a year later, joined Jack Farrell, a former JB Hoops AAU player who is headed into his first season at National Collegiate Athletic Association Division II East Stroudsburg University, in leading the Mountaineers to consecutive state playoff victories for the first time in school history.
The teammates share many common traits. They are talented ballhandlers, who use their quickness to make an impact defensively and combine that with the toughness necessary to rebound well for players under six feet.
“They’re magicians with the basketball,” Basalyga said, “so I trust them to get the ball and go make a play.”
Their points, however, come about in different ways.
Nocito is the sharpshooter while Finarelli has a knack for getting to the basket where he was able to convert layups in traffic and draw fouls while scoring 45 points during the weekend.
The game-winner by Nocito from the corner with two seconds left to decide the team’s closest test of the event was his fifth 3-pointer of that game. He led the team with nine 3-pointers made in the four games, hitting 50 percent of those attempts and shooting 60 percent overall from the floor.
Finarelli was just 1-for-5 from long range, but shot better than 50 percent from the floor and went to the line by far the most on the team, going 14-for-18.
They often rotate for NEPA Elite, working with different units, but it was no coincidence that they joined forces to lead the team down the stretch in its only close game.
“I like having them both on the court together at the end of the game,” Basalyga said.
Although the rising junior guards from Dallas led the way, NEPA Elite showed off many offensive options.
Finarelli and Nocito averaged 11 points per game, Jajuan Nicholls and Harry Johnson provided more than 8, while Jason Shields and Brandon Roche were above 6 and Justin Smith added more than 5.
“It was a very solid weekend,” Basalgya said. “I think we grew a lot as a team. We got even contributions all around and that’s kind of what we needed.”
Nicholls, a 6-foot-7 junior forward from Holy Cross, led the team in defensive rebounds and total rebounds while sharing the lead in blocked shots with Johnson.
“When Nicholls locks in, there are not many kids that can stop him,” Basalyga said.
Smith, a senior point guard from Pocono Mountain West, led the team with 10 assists and 9 steals.
Roche, a 6-4 senior forward from Scranton Prep, was the top offensive rebounder.
“It was a breakout weekend for him,” Basalyga said. “What really stood out was the way he crashed the boards.”
Johnson is a senior forward from Abington Heights. Shields is a junior guard/forward from Scranton.
A look back at how the team got through the weekend:
NEPA Elite 67, Wyoming Valley Barons 59
Finarelli and Nicholls turned back a second-half comeback by the Wyoming Valley Barons early Saturday morning.
The Barons cut a 14-point, second-half deficit to 1 in the 11th Grade Boys Division opener.
Finarelli scored eight points and Nicholls hit back-to-back 3-pointers during a 20-7 run to a late 67-53 lead. Finarelli finished with 18 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals.
Johnson scored 10 of his 16 points in the second half and grabbed 8 rebounds.
Nicholls had 13 points, 12 rebounds and 3 blocked shots.
Shields finished the first half with a 3-pointer and Johnson had 6 points when NEPA Elite followed that with the first 10 of the second half for a 40-26 lead.
NEPA Elite 66, Syracuse Select A 50
Finarelli went 7-for-8 from the line while scoring 11 points and 7 teammates added at least 6 points each as NEPA Elite spread the offense around Saturday morning in its only game against a 10th Grade Division opponent.
Smith, who made a team-high four steals, and Roche each scored nine points.
Nicholls, who grabbed a game-high eight rebounds, and Johnson each had seven points and two blocked shots. Nocito and Shields also scored seven points.
Jacob Anderson, a senior guard/forward from Abington Heights, chipped in with six points.
Johnny Rose, a senior guard from Scranton, and Andrew Ferguson, a junior guard from Scranton Prep, shared the team assist lead of three with Johnson.
NEPA Elite 51, Syracuse Select-11 48
NEPA Elite came from seven down in the last 6½ minutes to win the last of its three Saturday games.
Nocito’s third 3-pointer of the last nine minutes and fifth of the game decided the outcome.
NEPA Elite had a timeout and possession on the frontcourt sideline in front of its bench with 6.5 seconds left in the tie game.
Johnson’s screen helped Nocito work free as he ran the baseline, heading toward the right corner.
Nocito took the in-bounds pass from Shields, then wheeled and launched the winning shot from deep in the right corner.
NEPA Elite scored 8 of the game’s final 10 points to complete a 15-5, closing run.
Nocito also set up in the right corner for a 3-pointer with 2:36 left to force a 46-46 tie.
A steal by Nocito then led to a two-on-one break in which he fed Finarelli for his only field goal of the game and the first NEPA Elite of the final 12:48.
Syracuse answered the go-ahead basket that came with 1:27 left. It tied the game on a tip-in with 43 seconds remaining, but did not see the ball again until the final two seconds.
A desperation half-court shot hit the backboard and rim at the final buzzer.
NEPA Elite never led by more than three points in the 11th Grade Division game that featured eight ties and eight lead changes.
Nocito finished with 19 points on 7-for-11 shooting, including 5-for-8 on 3-pointers. He also made two steals.
Shields, who had 10 points, and Nicholls, who added 8, each made a pair of 3-pointers.
Roche had six points and six rebounds.
Shields and Ferguson had three assists each.
NEPA Elite 79, Academy Hoops 48
Rose and Finarelli led the way with 13 points each as NEPA Elite again showed off its balance while posting an 11th Grade Division romp over Academy Hoops Sunday in its final game.
Four players scored in double figures and nine had at least five points.
Nocito added 11 and Roche had 10.
The team shot 54.6 percent from the floor, including 5-for-5 by Roche. Finarelli was 5-for-6 in the first half when NEPA Elite took a 44-26 lead.
Smith, Nicholls and Ferguson all added seven points. Doug Walsh, a senior from Holy Cross, took just two shots, but they were both made 3-pointers, allowing him to add six. Anderson had five points.
Roche grabbed six rebounds and Anderson added five.
Nocito had four assists while Smith had three.
Smith and Finarelli each made four steals while Rose added three.
Finarelli got to the basket for six points during a 17-2 run to a 36-16 lead with 4:10 left in the half.
Rose hit back-to-back 3-pointers, Nocito drained one and Nicholls converted his own rebound into a three-point play during a 17-4 burst to turn a 13-point game early in the second half into a 62-36 blowout with 9:15 left.