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Phil Anastasia: The power of persistence pays off at last

Williamstown's Alssene Saintilus never gave up on basketball.

Alssene Saintilus is one of the most intriguing basketball players in South Jersey.

He also is a lesson in the power of persistence.

The 6-foot-6 senior forward for Williamstown can dunk in traffic, knock down three-pointers, block shots, and play defense on the perimeter.

He's still scratching the surface of his potential, mainly because he's still learning about varsity competition.

But it's not Saintilus' considerable athletic ability that's the secret to his sudden success. It's his perseverance.

"He's a great story," Williamstown coach Bill Hunt said. "This is a kid who never gave up. That's what we always try to teach these kids, and here's a perfect example of it."

Saintilus was cut from Williamstown's freshman team in 2007.

He was cut from the Braves' junior varsity in 2008.

"I wasn't going to give up," Saintilus said. "Basketball is a game that I love. I was going to keep trying because it was my dream to play for Coach and to play for this team."

Saintilus made the varsity last season. He was a starter and a solid contributor for a team that won 18 games.

But his improvement since the end of his junior season has been meteoric. He had 26 points in Williamstown's first two games this season, both victories, and was a major factor in the Braves' 55-54 loss to defending Tri-County Royal and South Jersey Group 3 champion Kingsway on Wednesday night.

Despite sitting out more than a quarter with foul trouble, Saintilus had nine points, eight rebounds, and three steals. He hit a three-point jumper and also finished a fastbreak with a thunderous dunk.

"It's amazing how much he's improved," Kingsway coach George Passante said. "We're down 10 and he goes out of the game [in foul trouble], and that's when we make our run. I'm not sure we make it if he's still in the game because he's such a force to be reckoned with."

Passante said that Saintilus, who couldn't even make the Williamstown JV two years ago, has become one of the best players in the conference.

"I think Rondell [Gilmore of Kingsway] and Curtis [Hopkins of Williamstown] are the best two players in the league," Passante said. "But this kid is not that far behind."

Saintilus grew up in Irvington in Essex County and played point guard for St. Leo/Sacred Heart grammar school as an eighth grader. His family moved to Williamstown before his freshman year.

Saintilus said he was 5-foot-9 as a 13-year-old. Now he's 6-6 as a 17-year-old and drawing interest from several college recruiters, according to Hunt.

"My dream has been to be an impact basketball player," Saintilus said. "I just want to help the team in any way that I can. I knew I could do it if I got the chance."

Saintilus was an alternate on Williamstown's junior varsity as a sophomore. He would have joined the team if another player had suffered an injury, run into academic difficulty, or left the squad for any other reason.

"That was one year when nothing happened to anybody on the JV," Hunt said. "That never happens, and it happened that year. So he never got a chance to come out."

Saintilus said he kept working on his game, playing in a recreation league in town as well as for the South Jersey Jazz AAU club.

He credits his father, Alievre, with keeping up his spirits during a difficult time.

"He told me I could do it," Saintilus said. "He told me to never quit."

Hunt said that Saintilus still is a little rough around the edges because of his lack of experience. But his talent is obvious, as is his desire to continue to improve.

"He'll do some things that will make you shake your head sometimes," Hunt said. "But he'll also do some things that will make you go 'wow.' "