MELROSE, Mass. -- Basketball is a game of runs, but no one saw the run Melrose went on from midway through the first quarter to just under two minutes left in the first half coming.
After New Mission jumped out to an 8-1 lead, forcing seven turnovers in the first five minutes, Melrose went on a 27-0 run to take a 28-8 lead with 1:55 left in the first half.
Keyed by the run, Melrose (22-0) withstood a fierce New Mission (15-7) second half comeback to hold on for a 69-65 win in the quarterfinals of the Division 2 North MIAA Tournament before a standing room only crowd at the Melrose High gym Saturday night to continue their undefeated season.
“That has been us about the last three or four games, but we can look at it like we blew a lead late, or we got a big lead early and we were able to sustain it,” said Melrose coach Mike Kasprzak. “We were never losing in the game, right? That is kudos to our kids.”
Melrose got off to a rough start, visibly nervous and very tentative. The Red Raiders also suffered a scare when senior captain Samual Jean-Gilles went down hard on a dunk attempt, landing on his elbow/shoulder just over two minutes into the game.
Thankfully for Melrose, he returned to the game just three minutes later and was the player who guided the run. Jean-Gilles scored 15 points in the run, including seven straight at one point.
The second quarter was all Melrose as they outscored the visiting Titans 20-5, forcing seven turnovers and playing an outstanding 1-3-1 zone defense, taking New Mission off their game as they settled for jump shots where it seemed like there was a lid on the hoop.
Melrose took a 30-13 lead into halftime, and seemed well on their way to a win, but New Mission had other ideas. The Titans opened the half on a 22-9 run of their own, to cut the deficit to four, at 39-35 with just over two minutes left in the third quarter.
This wasn’t a complete shock for Kasprzak, as his team has given up big leads before.
“We’re a little hirky-jerky and have big leads and lose them, but then regain them,” he said. “That is our style right there. We put up 70 on a team that is pretty good.”
The Red Raiders closed the quarter on an 8-0 run to take a 46-35 lead into the fourth.
Although New Mission threw everything they had at Melrose, the home team stayed strong and was able to hang on at the end.
“[I was most proud] of our composure,” Kasprzak said. “Even though they were scoring at the end we were still using clock and made sure the clock was running with our last few possessions.”
Trailing 67-60 with just over a minute left, New Mission scored the next five points to trail by just two, at 67-65 with under 20 seconds to play, but Melrose was able to beat the Titans’ trap and senior captain Matthew Sherlock’s layup sealed the win for the Red Raiders.
Down the stretch, throughout the entire fourth quarter, Melrose rotated seven or eight players, playing the offense-defense game, with each player playing their own role.
“We’ve been doing it all year going small-big, small-big,” Kasprzak said. “These kids have been doing it all year. They are students of the game and we’re not the most talented team in the state, but we do a lot of work in the program and they listen. We scout, as all coaches should, and our kids are willing to do the extra work.”
While Jean-Gilles led Melrose for the first three quarters, he went scoreless in the fourth quarter and other players stepped up when they needed to, including junior captain Frantzdy Pierrot who scored seven of his 16 points in the final stanza.
Kasprzak also praised some of his role players for their play in the game.
“Connor (Gilbert), Julian (Nyland), Colby (Andrews), they played great,” he said.
Jean-Gilles finished with a game-high 22 points, with Andrews added 11.
New Mission had three players reach double figures led by senior Sam Freeman and sophomore Juwan Gooding each finishing with 15 points. Sophomore Randy Glenn contributed 14 in a losing effort.
While only scoring six points, Kasprzak was impressed with junior guard Shaquan Murray of the Titans.
“No. 11 (Murray) for them is such a classy kid, wow,” he said.
With the win, Melrose sets up a rematch of last year’s Division 2 North semifinal against Brighton. Brighton came out on top last year 65-59, but Kasprzak is hopeful this year will be different.
“I love our chances. [Our team has] so much heart,” he said, but then added how he knows just how tough Brighton is. “Everyone who I talked to last night said [Brighton] is the best team in the state, so hey what else could you want.”
In order to reach the EMass final, Melrose would have to beat New Mission as well as Brighton, which is something that isn’t going over well with Kasprzak.
“Nobody has ever gotten a draw like we have as a No. 1 seed,” said Kasprzak. “We don’t take it as disrespect, but it is unreal that anyone has to go through New Mission and Brighton just to get to Tsongas. It’s unbelievable. We don’t look past anybody and respect the process....These are the two of best teams in the state and North Andover is maybe the best team in the state, it’s unprecedented.”
Brighton and Melrose will play Tuesday night in Woburn, while the other semifinal will be Wakefield versus the winner of North Andover vs. Concord-Carlisle, on Wednesday night in Lawrence.