WORCESTER, Mass. –- Beating highly-regarded Wachusett has helped raise Worcester South in the rankings. But the Colonels' 67-62 win over St. John’s on tonight, in front of its home crowd on Apricot Street, may have proved their Central Mass. superiority.
St. John’s (9-4) has long been the team to beat in Central Mass., especially after winning the last five Central Mass. Division 1 championships. Coming into the game, the Colonels felt like they had something to prove going up against St. John’s.
So much to prove, in fact, that junior point guard Kasheen Cunningham (15 points) couldn’t get the upcoming game off his mind.
“I couldn’t fall asleep until like 3:30 last night. I was tossing and rolling over in bed, I couldn’t even fall asleep,” Cunningham said. “During school, I can’t even lie, I couldn’t focus sometimes. I was thinking about St. John’s all day, just thinking about winning this game -— I knew how important winning this game was for us.”
Senior guard Rod Milton (26 points, nine rebounds) understood the importance of the game, too. The 6-foot-2 Milton led a furious fourth quarter run by South (11-2), who trailed 31-24 at halftime.
The Pioneers were able to hold Milton to nine first half points, thanks mostly to their 2-3 zone. St. John’s constantly double-teamed Milton on the wings, where he most likes to receive the ball. Because of the pressure zone, and a combination of admitted nervousness by South, St. John’s was able to force the Colonels into several quick turnovers and forced shots in the first half.
Midway through the third quarter however, South turned it on defensively. The Colonels started moving the ball better on offense, and counted on the scoring of Milton and Cunningham to seal the win.
Milton hit several tough shots in the third quarter, including a deep three-pointer from the top of the arc with ten seconds to go in the quarter, bringing South to within a point of the Pioneers, 47-46.
Battle of the boards: With St. John’s coming in holding a significant size advantage, South had to greatly improve their first half effort in order to make the comeback. Pioneers’ forwards Charlie Murray, Alex Fisher, and T.J. Kelley all had a big presence on the glass in the first half, and that was a point of emphasis for South in terms of halftime adjustments.
“We’re not a big team, we just had to work on the basics and hold everyone accountable for what they do on the defensive end,” South coach Pat Williams said.
Williams didn’t have to say much to hold players accountable at halftime, Cunningham said the players immediately walked into the locker room and constructively critiqued their defensive play.
“When we came in the locker room at halftime, we were all yelling at each other, but we knew that was going to make us play better, and make us come out and compete,” Cunningham said, “In the second half we made sure we crashed the boards, box out on Charlie [Murray] because him and [Alex] Fisher were getting a lot of rebounds, so we made sure we closed out on them and boxed out.”
Forwards Darwin Agyei and Khalil Bryan-Robinson were instrumental in holding St. Johns’ bigs off the glass in the second half, they each totaled eight rebounds and on several occasions doubled the Pioneers’ forwards on the block to force them into tough shots.
Milton goes off: Rod Milton has asserted himself as one of the best players in Central Mass. -- and arguably, the Western half of the state. Coming in he knew the St. John’s defenders were going to key on him, and they did just that, using the zone to make it difficult for him to score off the dribble.
“They are the team to beat. We would love to win districts this year, that would be really big for us—I would love to finish high school as a district champion,” Milton said. “We lost at WPI a few years ago, and that’s just on my mind. I want to get back to WPI with my team and try to win it. Our team is good, we practice hard, and we finish games strong.”
Milton seemed to hit tough shot after tough shot in the fourth quarter, using his patented mid-range jumper to ultimately put the Pioneers away in the closing minutes of the game. Given the Pioneers’ reputation, and currently being the highest-ranked team of any Central Mass. squad in ESPNBoston.com's statewide Top 25 poll, Milton had a little extra incentive tonight.
“I guess they’re the number one team again [in Central Mass.]," Milton said. "So that’s two number one teams [St. John’s and Wachusett] that we’ve beaten. It’s really big, beating them, I’m really happy.”
Cunningham carries on: Given the perceived magnitude of the game, Cunningham came into the game a little bit more nervous than usual. He went one for four from behind the arc in the first half, and he admitted that his shot selection needed to improve if the Colonels wanted to come out with a win.
“I came in the locker room knowing I forced too many threes -— I think it was out of nervousness," Cunningham said. "Coach told me in the first half that I was shooting too many threes, and I knew that. I took a lot of bad shots in the first half, but in the second half I penetrated more, and I was able to hit a couple big shots.”
Late in the fourth quarter, Cunningham pump-faked from the corner, side-dribbled, and knocked down a three to give South a four point lead. Moments later, he got a steal and finished a breakaway lay-up at the other end. It was the type of urgency that Williams’ team has played with all year.
“We just focused more.," Williams said. "In the first half we were rattled. I just told kids calm down, because I think we forced a lot in the first half. The good thing is that they don’t believe their own hype, and that’s what I’m most proud of with these guys. They know on any given night that they can be beaten.”
Cunningham had 10 points in the second half, but shifted the attention to the Colonels’ star senior after the game. An emotional leader who South feeds off of, Rod Milton has, according to Cunningham, earned the respect from his teammates because of his continuous clutch play.
“Rod is Rod, he’s going to get his points," Cunningham said. "Fourth quarter, I’m not going to lie of course I want the ball, but if Rod is on the team, he needs the ball. It’s his senior year, we know Rod isn’t going to let us down at all. Closing seconds, when it comes down to it, Rod is going to get the ball and he’s going to do his thing.”
Williams, of course happy to come out with a win over St. John’s, emphasized his team’s “one game at a time” attitude that has gotten them to where they are.
“To us it’s just one basketball game," Williams said. "We’re not going to get too high for one game, because we have another game Monday night. We’ve just got to bring our A-game every night. We aren’t good enough to take nights off.”