LOWELL, Mass. -– Brighton is used to making second-half comebacks. On Saturday they added North Andover to the long list of teams who couldn’t close the them out, winning the Division 2 North championship game 64-59.
Nick Simpson (23 points, 15 rebounds) carried the Bengals’ offense for the vast majority of the game, especially in the first half when co-star Malik James was struggling to hit shots. James, who led the Bengals to the state championship game last year as a sophomore—shot just 1-for-10 from the field in the first half.
The Scarlet Knights were anchored in the first half by senior forward Chris Bardwell (16 points, 12 rebounds) and guard Derek Collins (16 points, 5 rebounds). In the first half alone, Bardwell had a double-double and had a huge presence in holding Brighton off the glass. Despite his efforts though, the Bengals were able to keep the game within striking distance at halftime, 34-27, thanks to a dominant team offensive rebounding performance.
“I’m really trying to get the guys to have a sense of urgency and realize that we can’t wait like sometimes you wait to get a feel, you want to feel a team out," Brighton coach Hugh Coleman said. "I’ve been stressing, since the playoffs started: get up, get after it, even from the opening tip, attack.”
James’ slump didn’t last long though, he kept driving into the paint in the third quarter—and that finally started to pay off, as he scored 10 of his 12 points in the third quarter. Thanks in part to James and Simpson attacking the rim, Bardwell spent a decent amount of time on the bench late in the third and in the fourth quarter.
“Malik was very frustrated because he felt like his jumper wasn’t going down, he tried to take a couple lay-ups that missed and I let him know to stay with it. Sometimes that’s the way the ball bounces, unfortunately,” Coleman said. “I wanted him to keep staying going to the basket, even though he didn’t get a few of the foul calls. And eventually it kind of gets going, so that’s what happens for him. And that’s big, because once that happens for him, then it opens stuff for Nick and Daivon.”
Edwards bounces back: Daivon Edwards almost didn’t make it to the Tsongas Center for the game because he had to take the SAT’s, but Coleman reiterated after the game that contact had been made with College Board, the administrator of the test, as well as the schools Edwards is applying to, to ensure that he could send in his SAT scores at a later date.
In return, Edwards had one of his best games of the season for the Bengals, nailing four three-pointers and forcing North Andover’s defense to constantly get a hand in his face and keep an eye on him. It was the type of game that Edwards needed, Coleman said, to re-gather his confidence going into the Eastern Mass. championship game.
“I have a lot of confidence in him," Coleman said. "Late in the season, he struggled. He wasn’t hitting anything, he wasn’t rebounding, he wasn’t playing defense -— so we had to take him out of a lot of games and not play him.
“But you know, I talked to him and I said ‘I know what you’re capable of, you’ve proven you can do it—stick with it’. Now the last few games, that stroke has been going—and it’s mean a lot for his confidence and that meant a lot for our team.”
Preparing for the worst, hoping for the best: Coleman is no stranger to North Andover’s talented lineup, they scrimmaged the Knights before the season and Coleman watched North Andover blow out a very talented Wakefield team earlier in the week. After seeing the Knights’ play in the semifinal match, Coleman was worried -- to say the least. He said the player that the Bengals prepared most for was Derek Collins, who drained 7 three-pointers in the win.
“[Collins] literally sparked his team, motivated his team. I’ll be honest, I kept saying ‘I don’t know what I’m gonna’ do with North Andover . They’re tough, I know they’re a well-coached team, they’re organized,” Coleman said, praising the Knights’ discipline and attention to detail, “They’re disciplined. And when I watched them at Wakefield, I could see it in their eyes that they were listening to their coach’s every word. That’s a dangerous team to play.”
Brighton rotated 10 players into the game on a consistent basis, and Coleman said that was done in particular to wear down Collins, who can get hot from three-point range on the drop of a dime. Collins, as mentioned, finished with 16 points, but had to work hard for his points and was harassed all afternoon by the Bengals’ on-ball defenders.
McVeigh announces retirement: A teary-eyed Mike McVeigh announced after the game that he would be retiring as head coach at North Andover after 31 years running the program. McVeigh said it was a decision that he made in his own mind two months ago, and one that, in a way, helped him enjoy the season and the team that will be the last he ever coaches.
“The feeling I’ve had for North Andover, for the players I’ve had for 31 years, all the assistant coaches, the booster program that we have in town, the school administration, the pep band -- you see it, and I think it’s pretty darn good here," McVeigh said. "The number of former players is so precious to me, a big part of my life.”
Captain Isaiah Nelsen (14 points) praised his coach after the game, hinting that while coming together and gelling as a team wasn’t easy, the Knights were motivated by their coach:
“If you told me in November that this team would be Co-MVC champs and make it to the finals at the Tsongas, I’d tell you that you
were crazy," he said. "Everyone made sacrifices, we sacrificed shots, and we did it for the better of the team.”