WORCESTER, Mass. -– It took 15 years, but Steve Manguso has brought another Central Mass. championship home to Milford, in what may be the veteran head-man’s best coaching job yet.
The Hawks (20-5), who saw a balanced scoring effort from David Mercier (15 points), Scott Vanbuskirk (11 points), and Mike Tracy (12 points, 10 rebounds), ended the St. John’s (16-7) dynasty that has won five consecutive district title -— winning 56-54 before a packed house at Worcester Polytechnic Institute's Harrington Auditorium on Sunday afternoon.
From the perspective of opposing Central Mass. teams, little was known about Milford going into the tournament. The Hawks made the transition this year from Mid Wach A into the Hockomock League, giving them few games in the Worcester area and few opportunities to be seen. The mystery and mystique played to their advantage.
The Pioneers jumped out to an early lead in this one. Senior captain Ken Harrington (14 points) was firing on all cylinders while forward Alex Fisher (17 points, 13 rebounds) was a constant force on the glass, forcing the 6-foot-6 Mercier and 6-foot-5 Tracy to constantly have eyes on him and box him out. Down 16-9 early, the Hawks went on an 11-4 run to end the first half.
Senior point guard Joe Atkinson -- who ran the point brilliantly for the Hawks -- started off the second half with a lay-up, tying the game at 22 less than a minute into the third quarter. Minutes later, after several back-and-forth possessions, Vanbuskirk drove through the Pioneers defense and pushed a tough lay-up over the back of the rim to give Milford their first lead of the game. Following a defensive stop, Mike Titlebaum hit a three from the left wing to put the Hawks up by five.
Kenny doesn’t quit: After a pretty dribble-drive from the high post by Tracy, Milford held a commanding 51-45 lead with under 2 minutes to go in the game. Then Harrington stepped up, hitting a jumpshot from 17 feet to bring down the lead. Following a Milford turnover and a timeout called by the Pioneers, Harrington hit a highly-contested three from the corner off of an inbounds pass to bring the score to 51-50 with one minutes left.
“Harrington played very well today. He hit that big three from the corner,” Manguso said. “He’s a good player, he has three district championships, he’s been there.”
Moments later, after two free throws by Mercier, Fisher scored off of an offensive rebound -- a recurring theme as St. John’s outrebounded the Hawks 34-27.
“We knew they were a good rebounding team, our focus was to do better, but we didn’t do too well," Mercier said. "We got outrebounded, but we hit shots when we needed to, we got stops when we needed to, and that’s what helped us.”
The Pioneers intentionally fouled Mercier, and he missed an opportunity to put the game on ice by missing the front half of a one-and-one.
“I was feeling good until I went to the line again and missed that next one, but ya know, you gotta’ forget about it. Someone else went to the line, Mike Titlebaum hit two free throws, and that set us ahead,” he said.
Redemption for Milford: One of the Pioneers’ victims during their run to the state semis last year was Milford, whom they beat 64-55 in the quarterfinals. Mercier said that loss added some fuel to his team’s fire, making them work hard in the offseason and play against the Pioneers with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder.
“Getting to WPI and missing out by one game to St. John’s, who was a very good team, and to come back and beat them on this floor means so much, it means so much,” Mercier said. "We knew coming in -- they had all the pressure...We were the ‘little’ public school who came in and beat St. John’s.”
Manguso praised several of his players after the game, including Vanbuskirk, Titlebaum, and Atkinson, for playing their roles and making the big shots necessary for Milford to pull off the win.
“Scotty scoring today, Tidey hit that big three. Joe, I mean Joe Atkinson is just unbelievable to watch," Manguso said. "That kid has worked so hard, and it’s just happening for him. He’s always been a very good athlete, and he’s just blossoming right in front of us. He’s had an unbelievable tournament.”
The coach also talked about the fight in his team. Despite being down in several points in Sunday’s game, as well as in the semifinal game against favored Wachusett -— a game they won 46-44.
“Everything goes though Saint John’s, everybody knows that,” Manguso said, “I know Bobby [Foley] and I know their kids, and I knew it would come down to that. We just tried to play one possession at a time, it ended up here, I think that game against Wachusett showed our resiliency. There was no panic, we figured it out. It was fun.”
With the win, the Hawks will take on Western Mass. champion Putnam in the state semifinal match on Tuesday night on the DCU Center. Few adjustments will be made by Milford -— at this point in the season, with the run they’re on, they are what they are—and Manguso is just fine with that.
“We have a little bit of everything. We have some size, very good perimeter defense," he said. "Their character, their chemistry is as good as any team I’ve ever had. Great bunch of kids, it’s a lot of fun going to work.”