FITCHBURG, Mass. -- Unsatisfied with the way his team was playing man-to-man defense, Charlestown head coach Edson Cardoso did something very un-Charlestown-like. At 2 p.m. yesterday during practice, he installed a Syracuse-style 2-3 zone.
And with a much anticipated rematch with archrival East Boston on tap for Tuesday, the switch -- coupled with the return of two key players -- might be just what the skidding Townies needed to snap out of their funk. After trailing by a slim margin through three quarters, the Townies broke through in the fourth, and held on for a crucial 55-52 win over Fitchburg, this afternoon at the Doug Grutchfield Field House.
"I said, you know what, I've never played zone before in my life, but tomorrow against Fitchburg we're going to try it," Cardoso said of yesterday's practice. "We just feel like the 2-3 zone makes us a better rebounding team, we weren't getting too many offensive boards, and tonight I think might be the first time we've outrebounded a team."
Said junior swingman Tyrese Hoxter (23 points) of the switch, "We're real long, so we knew it work to help us get out in transition."
Hoxter catapulted the Townies (9-3) in the fourth quarter with some impressive play around the rim. The 6-foot-3 slasher didn't miss in the final frame, going 5-for-5 from the field and hitting both of his free throw attempts -- both converting three-point plays -- to total 12 points and give Charlestown enough cushion to hold off an inspired Fitchburg rally in the final minute.
First, Hoxter took a deep outlet pass from Omar Orriols (20 points) for an easy layup and 48-42 advantage with under two minutes to go. Fitchburg's Mick Snowden (12 points) returned the favor on the ensuing Red Raiders (9-4) trip down the floor, hitting a three from the left wing. But Hoxter answered again, picking the pocket of Quinton Perkins (12 points, seven rebounds, four assists) and slipping in a soft breakaway layup.
The next trip down, Hoxter threw a dagger. Gathering himself behind the right elbow, he took his defender to his right, took off from the right block, and delivered a reverse windmill layup through two bodies, picking up a foul in the process. He hit the free throw to make it 53-46 with 50 seconds to go.
"The dude [his man] kind of ran with his hands down at me," Hoxter explained. "So I kind of just went after him. As I was getting into the lane, the guy that was sticking Tyrik (Jackson) had his back to me. So I knew he was going to see me, and once he saw me I went up on the left side."
Hoxter got one more basket, a cherry-pick off an intercepted entry pass by Taris Wilson, before Chuck Doss (10 points) cut the lead to 55-52 with 4.9 seconds left on a three. The Townies threw the ball away from contact on the inbounds to ice the win.
Abi Akanni also chipped in with nine points and nine rebounds for the Red Raiders, who have now dropped two straight.
Stars return: It was a first return to action for two of the Townies' stars, Orriols and Rony Fernandez, in several weeks. Orriols was suspended from the team for two weeks, while Fernandez had missed the previous month for personal reasons.
Fernandez finished with eight points and a few assists, but Orriols' play was especially encouraging. He was 3-for-4 from three-point range in the third quarter, and in the fourth quarter he came down with several long rebounds and steals that opened up transition play, where the Townies excel the best.
"Now you get to see how we play Charlestown basketball," Cardoso said. "The young guys did a great job stepping up, but our veteran guys are gonna take us where we need to go. Our younger guys are gonna step up when they have to, but it just feels better having Rony at the point to get us under control."
Said Hoxter, "It opens up the court for me. Two shooters, I can pass to my left or to my right, or if it's open I can just attack the hole."
Playing through pain: Cardoso applauded the efforts of Hoxter, who is playing through a sprained right wrist and was estimated to be at roughly "70 percent" health.
"We hope he's 100 percent by the time we play East Boston," Cardoso said. "But he's giving us what he can. He gives us a problem on the matchup zone, because he's so long and athletic. He did a great job for us."
Building Momentum: One of the reasons we like Fitchburg's chances come playoff time is how their aggressive non-conference scheduling conditions them for the month of February. Headed into next week, the Red Raiders sit at 5-0 in the Mid-Wach A, with losses to Charlestown (today), LaSalle (R.I.) (Dec.29), BC High (Jan. 7) and a surging St. John's of Shrewsbury squad last Wednesday that has suddenly won eight of their last nine after starting the year 3-4.
Closing out games has been a problem at times this year for the Raiders -- they led 40-39 after three quarters, and 27-22 at the half. But head coach Paul DiGeronimo was encouraged by the effort in the loss, and how it will affect them going forward.
"We're only going to benefit from this game today," DiGeronimo said. "We've played better than we played on Wednesday. So, if we can play better in a loss, than we're headed in the right direction. We wanted to win, but I felt better coming out of this one than I felt on Wednesday against St. John's.