ANDOVER Mass. -- Friday’s basketball matchup between No. 11 Andover and No. 14 Brockton had one overarching theme: identity.
Coming off a season clouded by negative national attention, Andover is looking to develop a new identity as a force to be reckoned with in the MIAA. Brockton, coming off a trip to the Division 1 State Finals, is trying to figure out what kind of a team it will be with last year’s senior class gone.
In the end, Andover came away with a 55-48 victory, setting the tone for the rest of the season.
“Brockton is tough, they’re quick, they get it out in transition,” said Andover coach Dave Fazio. “I thought our kids did a great job getting back, holding their ground, because they try to break you off the dribble penetration. I thought the key to the game was keeping the ball in front of us.”
Brockton (1-1) was so reliant on its guard play that Andover (2-0) clogged the lane and forced the Boxers to take perimeter shots. Sometimes it worked to its advantage, but other times not so much. While senior Jaylen Blakely struggled from the field, Nisre Zouzoua accounted for 23 of his team’s points, including 3 three-pointers and a perfect 6-for-6 from the free throw line.
Andover, on the other hand, found lots of offensive success around the basket. Sam Dowden, in particular, had a near double-double with 20 points and nine rebounds. Brockton had no answer for him, and Andover won the rebounding battle 33-29.
“I was just trying to be aggressive,” he said. “They’re not really as big as they were in recent years. Coming into the game, I was kind of focused on crashing the board and being aggressive and trying to use my size.”
After being down four points at halftime, Brockton came out early in the third with a renewed energy. It forced three quick Andover turnovers on consecutive possessions and tied the game. Then Andover fought back, went up by 5 two minutes into the quarter, and never looked back.
One of Andover’s strengths Friday, and will be moving forward in the season, was its bench contributions. The team went eight-deep the entire game and kept attacking Brockton on both ends of the floor. Whereas Brockton played 11 players, and struggled to find a grouping that worked well.
“We start five guys, but we really have eight starters,” said Chris Dunn (10 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals). “We have a bunch of guys that come off the bench the really give a big spark. Every day we compete in practice and guys just know their roles and play as a team.”
Bottlenecking Blakely: Andover had a plan coming into the game: stop Jaylen Blakely. The senior point guard is the catalyst for the Brockton’s offense, and can facilitate for teammates or attack teams off the dribble and from long range. Andover held Blakely to just four points in the game, all coming from the free throw line.
“He was the whole key to the whole game,” said Fazio. “He torched us for 25 points last year and totally dominated the game. They set a lot of high ball screens and we were just doubling him. That kid is such a tremendous player, we just totally wanted the ball out of his hands. I thought our kids executed that pretty well.”
--- Brockton will spend the early part of the season trying to replace the interior play of Sayvonn Houston, who graduated last year. The 6-foot-7, 230-pound presence in the middle wreaked havoc on teams both offensively and defensively. Now, it will have to count on multiple players to fill the role, like newcomer Shakeem Smith, who had four points, eight rebounds, and two blocks Friday.
With no intimidating presence in the lane, Dowden was able to almost score at will, ending the game with 20 points and nine rebounds while spending most of the game on the low block.
On to the next one: Given that Brockton played for the Division 1 State Championship last season, it would make sense if this win took on extra meaning for Andover. However, the coaches and players were reluctant to call it anything more than what it was: one win and one game.
“I don’t know,” said Fazio. “I was telling my guys to forget about the obstacles and follow the process and just try to get better every day. I think we’re better today than we were on Tuesday. I’m not really into the statement wins or any of that stuff. It’s just the process. You want to try to get better every game. It shouldn’t matter who we play.”
With a packed house and excited student section, it certainly felt like the game had an added element to it, even if it was just the second game of the season for both teams.
“I’m not sure if it was a statement game, but it’s a great test for us to see where we are in the beginning of the season,” said Dowden. “It’s a tough game to play in the beginning of the season, we usually play them at the end of the season. But you know, regardless it’s a big win, they’re a great team, and it kind of lets us know where we are.”