WOBURN, Mass. -- Brighton head coach Hugh Coleman already went over the situation with his team – who would the Bengals go to in a crucial late game possession?
“In practice I said, ‘When the game is on the line, who takes the last shot?’...I said it to the whole team,” Coleman recalled. “Everyone said Malik (James). Then I said, ‘What if Malik is double-teamed, and Nick (Simpson) is wide open?’ Then they said ‘Oh, pass the ball.’ So I said, we get the ball to Malik and trust that he will make the right play.”
Coleman could not have scripted it any better when Brighton (18-6) was clinging to a two-point lead, 61-59, with less than 30 seconds left in Tuesday night’s Division 2 North MIAA state tournament semifinal against Melrose (22-1).
James drove to the hoop, but then was double-teamed so he laid a perfect pass to Simpson on the block for an easy lay in, which proved to be the game-winning basket in No. 5 Brighton’s 65-62 thrilling win over No. 1 Melrose at a jam packed Woburn high school field house.
“It’s survive and advance,” said Coleman. “You know what, we made just enough plays to squeak through.”
In a wild, back-and-forth game, it was all knotted up at 59 with 2:34 to play and the Bengals were able to score the next five points.
First, a jumper by James with 1:10 to go, followed by a Melrose turnover, the Bengals beautify executed the fore mentioned play and then forced a miss down the other end with Simpson being fouled and hitting one of two free throws for a 64-59 lead with 19 seconds left.
The Red Raiders wouldn’t go down easily as senior captain Matthew Sherlock, nailed his fifth three-pointer of the game, cutting the deficit to two, 64-62 with just over ten ticks left on the clock.
Following a Melrose foul, James hit one of two free throws to take a 65-62 lead with nine seconds left, giving the Red Raiders one last chance to force overtime.
Senior Sam Jean-Gilles got a good, deep look at three from the left side, but it missed and the Brighton bench exploded with excitement as they advanced to their second straight Division 2 North final. Ironically, the Bengals defeated the same Red Raiders in last year’s semifinal, 65-59.
“It feels good,” said Simpson, who wasn’t on the EMass championship team last year. “We just have to keep going and playing with intensity as a team.”
Things could not have started any better for Brighton as they jumped out to a 10-0 lead, just 1:40 into the game. Their momentum continued for the rest of the quarter as they led Melrose 24-13 after the first eight minutes.
The Bengals got a bit of a scare in the opening minutes of the second quarter when Simpson appeared to roll his ankle and was forced to leave the game. Melrose took advantage going on a 9-0 run with him on the bench to only trail 26-22.
Simpson was inserted back in the game and scored eight of the next ten Brighton points to regain control.
“His ankle is tender from the Burlington game,” Coleman said. “So, we tape it up and there is always that chance he can roll it again. It didn’t look as bad, and he went to the bench and shook it off a little bit. It means a lot to have him out there on the court.”
Simpson knew his teammates needed him to fight through the pain.
“It was hurting for a few minutes, but I took my time and then went back in,” he said. “… It was still bothering me, but I knew I had to play through it.”
Trailing 34-29 at the half, Melrose came out hot to start the second half scoring the first six points to take their first lead of the game, 35-34. Brighton responded right away scoring the next five points to retake the lead, 39-35 midway through the third quarter.
Two Sherlock three-pointers gave the Red Raiders a 47-41 lead, but once again the Bengals countered going on a 7-2 run to close the third, giving Melrose a 49-48 advantage going into the final quarter setting up the dramatic closing minutes.
Sherlock scored 21 points to lead Melrose, while Jean-Gilles finished with 16 and Frantzdy Pierrot added 15 in a losing effort.
It was Melrose’s first loss of the season, but coach Mike Kasprazak recognizes it was to one of the better teams the state has to offer.
“They are one of the best teams in the state,” he said. “They were preseason number one and hats off to them, -- they are a great team. They have a lot of talent and are well coached.”
Looking back at the game, the Red Raiders will be kicking themselves for their performance at the foul line. They missed six-of-seven free throws in the second half, including seven straight at one point. Brighton wasn’t much better (10-for-28, 36 percent overall), but they were able to overcome it and not let it hurt them.
Brighton was led by Simpson (22) and James (21), who combined for 43 of the Bengals’ 65 points. Simpson also pulled down eight rebounds, while James dished out nine assists.
“My coach told me to calm down because last game I was a little wild,” Simpson said. “He told me to calm down and try to be more humble and get my team to get to the state championship.”
For Brighton, this is the second time in two weeks where they have knocked off a previously-undefeated team. The Bengals beat then-undefeated Danvers in the first round of the Comcast IAABO Board 27 Tournament last month.
Coleman isn’t really thinking much of it now, as the off-season is a time to look back and reflect.
“Honestly at this point I take it in stride,” he said. “I don’t really get caught up with the record because in the tournament they were 2-0 and we were 2-0. You know what, the first team that wins six in a row wins it all. So, when the season is over we can look back, and maybe look at the Danvers game, and maybe this game and say ‘wow, we beat an undefeated team, that’s special to come and knock them off.’”
A FAMILIAR PLACE
Brighton will be back in the Division 2 North final for the second straight year where they defeated Wakefield 66-59 last March to advance to the EMass championship at TD Garden. From there, they defeated Stoughton before falling to Mahar in the state final.
The Bengals could actually see the same Wakefield team in this years final, as they will play North Andover Wednesday night for the right to play Bengals this Saturday at Tsongas Arena.
“I will look at what we didn’t do well, what we did well, how we can improve because we have the winner of two good teams, Wakefield and North Andover,” Coleman said of how he will prepare for Saturday.
Brighton has taken its game to another level the past few weeks, and it will truly take a grand performance for a team to overtake the Bengals in the coming games.