SHREWSBURY, Mass. -– It’s been a long week for the Wachusett Mountaineers.
Following a loss on Monday to No. 25 Algonquin and on Tuesday to No. 7 BC High, Wachusett (16-4) finished a brutally tough slate of games on a high note, knocking off St. John’s 48-47.
Zack Berman played hero for the Mountaineers, totaling 16 points on five three-pointers, three of which came in the first half. His biggest feat, though, may have been anchoring Wachusett defensively in the fourth quarter.
The Mountaineers could have very well been pronounced dead halfway through the fourth quarter—Adham Floyd dropped in a lay-up on a 2-on-1, assisted by Davon Jones, that put Saint John’s (13-5) up 47-39 halfway through the final quarter. Wachusett then went on a 9-0 run to finish the game. St. John’s had possession with 48 seconds left, but Berman stripped Floyd and dove on the loose ball—he immediately called timeout.
“We were down eight with four [minutes] to play, but Berman just wouldn’t let us lose,” Wachusett coach Tom Gibbons said, “he played great defense on Harrington the whole game, and Harrington’s a great player. He battled on defense, to have the legs and the courage to take those shots was big. That kept us in the game.”
The Pioneers senior captain, Ken Harrington (13 points), has been Saint Johns’ go-to scorer for the majority of the season. Staring at a tied game after three quarters, Harrington came out in the fourth and knocked down two straight three pointers to give the Pioneers the momentum, and the 43-37 lead, two minutes into the fourth. Two minutes later Floyd scored the mentioned lay-up in transition, and the Pioneers didn’t score the rest of the game. After Floyd’s lay-up, Wachusett went on a 9-0 run to close out the win—sparked by Berman.
The captain hit a deep three to start off the run, senior Jesse Maresca put in a lay-up off of a beautiful spin move in transition on the next play. About a minute later, co-captain Alex Cooper came out of nowhere for on offensive rebound off a missed Berman lay-up, putting Wachusett back within a point.
Underclassmen come up big: Following Cooper’s putback, Wachusett freshman point guard Tyler Dion hit what may have been the biggest shot of the game—pump-faking from behind the three point line, taking one dribble in, and knocking down a jumper from 17 feet. Going into the play he had already hit two threes earlier, so the Pioneers were forced to close out hard on him on the jumpshot attempt.
“Ty can do a really good job of handling the ball, and he takes a little bit of pressure off me,” Berman said. “He does a good job shooting the ball, he gives us the three-point dimension there. He’s a great player with a bright future, but I’m more concerned about right now. He’s helping us now.”
Gibbons added, “We’ve been waiting for Dion to come on, what he’s brought to us the last few games is some toughness, hustle, and some resiliency. He doesn’t back down, it’s a good compliment to what we have.”
Dion wasn’t the only freshman who stepped up for the Mountaineers, though, forward Ryan McCarthy gave Wachusett some much needed depth and toughness at the forward position—especially going up against Saint Johns’ deep frontline.
Only two weeks ago McCarthy was on the JV team, but tonight Gibbons gave him his first varsity start. In keeping the Pioneers’ forwards off the glass, McCarthy certainly didn’t disappoint.
“He’s definitely one of the toughest kids on our team," Cooper said. "The things he’s done the past few games for us—he’s gotten some big rebounds for us, some huge putbacks. That kid is going to be a leader down the road, there are so many intangibles with him it’s incredible.”
Sophomore Justin Bowker also gave Wachusett an offensive boost that they needed in the first half. Bowker found a niche going up against the Pioneers’ zone, utilizing his strong mid-range jumper to score eight points in the first half—he had 11 points in total.
Controlling emotion: The first half was full of chippy play and hard fouls, Saint Johns’ forward TJ Kelley had to change his blood-stained jersey at halftime after taking an elbow to the face. Kelley and Cooper played extremely physical against each other the entire game, trash-talking and hard box-outs included.
It was a style of play uncharacteristic of both teams, but not surprising given the great magnitude of the game. Cooper said Wachusett was better off containing their emotions in the second half.
“I probably got into it a little bit too much, and it kind of brought me out of my game," Cooper said. "It brought all of us out of our game. We were getting a little too physical and too into it, but in the second half we were able to be physical in the right time and use it to our advantage.”
Berman added: “We played with emotion instead of playing emotional, as [Assistant] Coach Dion always says. We weren’t focused with our energy [in the first half]. We were able to contain our energy and focus in the second half and put it more towards playing hard and playing for a purpose. It was a good team win.”
Finishing a long week: Wachusett had a tough week of games this week, playing two ranked teams earlier this week in Algonquin and BC High, and finishing tonight against the Pioneers. Tonight marked Wachusett’s second win of the season over Saint John’s, who has dominated the Central Mass. Division 1 tournament for the last four years. After losing two straight, it was a win that Wachusett needed.
“They’re resilient. This was a character win on the road after losing to two tough teams earlier in the week. We knew it was going to be a rockfight,” Gibbons said, “Just a really good, grind it out type of win on the road against a good team. I’m proud of these guys, this was a tournament type of game.”
Berman has been an impact player for the last three years for Wachusett. This being he and Cooper’s last go-around as high school players, he made it clear that his Mountaineer squad won’t be intimidated by anybody.
“We’re focused on this year, some of the guys on our team weren’t even here the last couple years[when Saint John’s won the tournament], so we can only focus on this year. They’ve got a great program, but I honestly don’t care that they’ve won the last four years,” Berman said.
“I’m focused on this team, this year, and playing with what we have this year. Nothing but the utmost respect for them, but it’s this year’s team we’re concerned with.”