BEVERLY, Mass. -— It was a day firsts, of clutch performances by star players, and of tears induced by heartbreaking losses and emotional victories. NEPSAC championship Sunday at Endicott College was everything to be expected—and much, much more.
Champions were crowned in the AAA, AA and A classes Sunday afternoon at Endicott, with no shortage of action:
Cushing wins on a buzzer-beater: St. Andrew’s seemed to have completed the upset, but Jalen Adams simply couldn’t let that happen.
Heaving up a jumpshot from just over halfcourt with no time left on the regulation clock, Adams banked the shot in from off the glass, giving Cushing the 61-60 victory. It was just another on the list of feats that the sophomore guard has accomplished already over the course of his young career.
“But I’ve never hit a buzzer-beater before,” he said with an ear-to-ear grin. “When I shot it, I honestly didn’t think it was going to go in.”
It wouldn’t be the first time Adams, who was awarded Most Valuable Player, hit a halfcourt shot, though. In practice Cushing practices a drill where they take shots from different spots on the floor—one of those spots, of course, is from the halfcourt line.
“Jalen Adams has hit more halfcourt shots just goofing around in a team game, than anyone I’ve ever seen,” Cushing coach Barry Connors said. “Was it a wing and a prayer? No question. But hey, I’ll tell you what, he made the shot.”
St. Andrew’s trailed 33-28 at halftime, but came out on an absolute tear in the second half—beginning the half on an 8-0 run that gave them their first lead of the game with fourteen minutes to go. Cushing’s forward Andrew Chrabascz, a Butler signee, picked up his fourth foul with still ten minutes to go in the game. Connors put Chrabascz back in a few minutes later, and with his help, Cushing managed to diminish their deficit.
“I can save Andrew, or you go with what you’ve got, you go with who got you there," Connors said. "The interesting thing about Andrew is: yeah he had four fouls. On the fourth one, he made a bonehead play, but Andrew’s very, very smart. If anybody can play with four fouls, it’s Andrew Chrabascz."
Down eleven points with three minutes left in the game, the Penguins rode Adams and Chrabascz to the win. Adams hit a tough jumper to bring the game within six with under two minutes to go. Adams fed Chrabascz with six seconds left in the game, and Chrabascz finished a tough lay-up inside to bring Cushing to within 60-58. Cushing fouled immediately, and following a missed free throw by Bonzie Colson (16 points, 8 rebounds), Adams took the ball to halfcourt and won the game.
“If I was going to lose this game, I was going to lose with my five best guys on the floor,” Connors said.
Historic first for Exeter: For the first time in school history, Phillips Exeter captured the Class A crown, knocking off Choate Rosemary Hall 58-47 in the opening game of the day. Exeter’s remarkable 25-1 season has been a long journey, one that started last June when the players on the predominantly-postgrad squad met for the first time on the front steps of Exeter’s gym. A group of players who, for the most part had never met before, quickly realized that they all had a lot in common.
“We had guys who had just met for the first time -- we talked about our individual goals, and we realized we were all at Exeter for our own personal agendas," Exeter coach Jay Tilton said. "Because why else would you come here as a postgrad if you didn’t have them?”
Thanks in part to strong leadership by captains Harry Rafferty (Wesleyan College) and Chris Braley (Stony Brook), a culture of change was started at Exeter—a culture that quickly became contagious to the rest of the team. Good friends off the court, Rafferty and Braley, who along with Duncan Robinson played AAU together for Middlesex Magic, brought Exeter a mixed blend of leadership by toughness, and leadership by example.
Braley, a soft-spoken workhorse known for his incredible work ethic, set an example for the rest of the team of how to compose themselves, while Rafferty, a scrappy ‘in your face’ type of point guard, was the quarterback.
“Chris demands so much respect because of his work ethic and his integrity, he’s not a real emotional guy or anything like that...He just does it," Tilton said. "With Harry, he’s the guy who’s going to run the show from day one. He’s the most caring kid, and the best communicator I’ve ever coached.
Tilton added, with a laugh, "He’s about the only one out there who’s not afraid of Braley.”
Six-foot-7 forward Robinson, the tournament MVP, put on what may have been the most impressive individual performance of the tournament, finishing with 24 points and 11 rebounds and playing as close to a perfect game as one possibly can -— knocking down five 3-pointers and shooting 9-for-9 from the field. Robinson’s show was the cherry on top of an unprecedented season by Exeter, who earlier in the day met on the front steps of their gym to discuss their goals one last time before departing for the championship game.
“We just kind of knew we had already reached that. That’s why I’m so proud of this group of kids. This group will hold a special place in Exeter history,” Tilton said.
Tilton admitted it is also a team that will hold a special place in his own memory, too. The teary-eyed veteran coach embraced each one of his players after the game, including his star forward.
“He said he loved me, and I said it right back, he’s done so much for all of us, myself included,” Robinson said, “To do that for him -- I know he wanted it very, very badly. He’s the hardest-working coach I’ve ever played for. He loves his players and cares about each and every one of us. It was only right that we did it for him.”
Exeter’s tremendous defensive effort held a very good shooting Choate team to just 4-15 from behind the three-point line. Future Wisconsin guard Jordan Hill was the catalyst; with long arms, a hard-nosed defensive mentality, and quick feet, Hill constantly harassed Choate guards Colin Richey (10 points) and Pete Weston (15 points).
“It starts with Jordan,” Tilton pointed out, “every second of the game he has a high motor, he doesn’t take unnecessary chances. To play that hard on the ball—he starts it, and we have great commitment off the ball helping him. It’s something we’ve been committed to from day one.”
Brewster takes AAA title in a thriller: Martez Harrison was one of the top scorers in the nation last year, averaging 35 points per game at University Academy Charter in Missouri. On Sunday in the Class AAA championship game though, he showed his complete ability to play the point guard position—leading Brewster to a thrilling 77-75 victory.
“Martez is the kid on our team who definitely has the biggest heart, he’s a true leader," Brewster coach Jason Smith said. "The growth and improvement from a point guard’s perspective from September until now has been phenomenal. He’s not really in the limelight, but we don’t win without him controlling the tempo, making good decisions, and making the right plays.”
Harrison, who finished with 14 points, shared the spotlight with future West Virginia forward Elijah Macon -- who was fresh off a heroic performance against Northfield Mount Hermon on Friday night. Finishing with 15 points and 12 rebounds in the finals, Macon, Brewster’s sixth-man, took home tournament MVP.
“[At the] beginning of the year...Elijah knew we were having a difficult time with whether we should play all three of the bigs together," Smith said.n "Or who was going to come off the bench. Elijah was the one who volunteered, he’s very mature for an 18 year old kid.”
Macon and N.C. State-bound forward Kyle Washington each picked up their fourth foul about midway through the second half, but Smith said the foul trouble did little to hinder his team in terms of gameplanning and substitutions.
“We were going to play Elijah his normal rotation of four and a half minutes," Smith said. "It just worked out well, Kyle picked up his fourth foul initially, and the substitution pattern worked out perfectly. Four fouls never really even came into play, it was just subbing in four minute intervals when needed.”
Gabe Levin and Marquise Moore each had 20 points for St. Thomas More, who was the top seed in the tournament thanks to very strong guard play and great preparation from long-time coach Jere Quinn.
“Anytime that you can beat a Jere Quinn coached-teams in the finals, it’s something that you have to work very hard for,” Smith said. “His teams are always very well-prepared, they don’t beat themselves, they don’t make mistakes. We could have caved in when we were down, but we persevered, we got stops when we needed to and we found a way.”