TAUNTON, Mass. -– During an afternoon walk-through before Wednesday night’s MIAA Division 3-South semifinal game against Cardinal Spellman, Wareham’s Aaron Baptiste buried a couple of half-court shots.
In retrospect that was a premonition of things to come because Baptiste emulated that feat as the buzzer sounded to end the first half and give top-seeded Wareham a 42-32 lead.
When the final buzzer sounded, Baptiste had a game-high 33 points and Wareham had a 72-65 victory which sends them to UMass-Boston on Saturday where it’ll play Martha’s Vineyard for the Division 3 championship.
“We were shooting around before the game in our gym and I took a couple of half-court shots and they went in,” Baptiste said. “I was shooting around and I heard the whole bench yell ‘Shoot it. Shoot it.’
“I shot it up there and as I was falling down I kind of thought it was going in, given the look of it.”
A look at the final stat sheet revealed that Baptiste connected on eight three-point shots as well as 7-of-8 free throw attempts which, in part, enabled Wareham to remain undefeated (23-0).
Baptiste scored 20 of his points in the first half as Wareham twice built leads as large as 14 points (the second at 25-11 early in the second quarter).
“The basket definitely looked huge to me in the first half and kind of in the second half,” Baptiste said. “It felt good.”
Baptiste definitely “felt good” midway through the fourth quarter after the fifth-seeded Cardinals (19-6) had sliced their deficit to 57-53.
He drained his eighth trey which keyed a 7-0 run that gave Wareham a 64-53 lead.
Then, in the last 69 seconds, Baptiste hit all of his free throws to clinch the victory.
More than window dressing: What made Baptiste’s performance even more impressive was the fact that Wareham’s leading scorer, Darien Fernandez, only scored 11 points and spent roughly half the game on the bench because of foul trouble (he drew his third foul with 4:22 left in the first half).
“That’s our nightmare, worst-case scenario,” Wareham coach Kevin Brogoli said of Fernandez’s foul trouble. “We talked about it. We had to have him on the court. And when he’s not, we have to have other people step it up.
“Thank goodness for Aaron Baptiste who really did a great job tonight. His shooting was unbelievable. I told the guys before the game that one guy’s not going to win it for us. It’s got to be a team effort and that’s what it was tonight. It was looking bleak but other people stepped it up.”
Houde joined the party: What Baptiste meant to Wareham’s long-range shooting so did Jeff Houde mean to the team’s inside game.
Houde scored 13 points, most of which came at the offense end – primarily on tip-ins.
“He was huge,” Brogoli said. “Jeff really matured before my eyes tonight. He did a nice job on (Joey) Glynn (15 points). He got some big blocks and really helped us get that early lead by just hitting the offensive boards.
“Even in the second half he got some big put-backs. That was another big performance tonight … at the right time in the right place.”
Houde scored eight points in the first quarter including consecutive tip-ins which helped Wareham build a 23-9 lead at the break.
Rorey Donovan (14 points) keyed a second-quarter rally which enabled the Cardinals to pull within three points (33-30 with 2:34 left in the half). But Stefan Monteiro, Baptiste and Mason Vasconcellos each drained a three-point shot which helped Wareham build that 42-32 lead at intermission.
Timing is everything: Not surprisingly, Brogoli was ecstatic over Baptiste’s buzzer-beating trey from another zip code as well as his overall performance.
“Aaron takes those in practice,” Brogoli said. “Do I think an 80-footer’s going to go in with any regularity? No. But you knew it had a chance. It’s weird but the last two times we’ve played Spellman we’ve hit two half-court shots.
“I don’t know if (Baptiste’s eight treys) are a record. I’m not big on records but that has to be close. If it isn’t it doesn’t matter because he did it in a huge venue when it mattered the most. And we needed every one of those threes tonight.”