D3 Boys Final: Danvers 66, Smith Academy 50

WORCESTER, Mass. -– For the second times in as many years the Danvers boys’ basketball team captured the Division 3 state title. After defeated St. Joseph Central of Pittsfield in 2012, the defending champs took another team’s best shot for the last time, defeating Smith Academy 66-50 at the DCU Center in Worcester to finish the repeat.

Danvers (24-2) had to fight through until late in the game against Smith (22-4), the Western Mass. champion, before finally pulling away in the early minutes of the fourth.

Smith Academy kept the lead from getting to double digits, always on the verge of threating. With 38-32, the Danvers Falcons began to create separation when Vinny Clifford starting to knock down shots.

After not scoring in the first half, Clifford hit his last four shots, en route to 11 second half points.

“We were always that one or two shots away from extending that lead,” Danvers head coach John Walsh said. “I mean it’s credit to them. We just couldn’t extend it.”

Clifford rattled home a pair of threes in the opening minutes of the fourth and Danvers held a double-digit lead for the rest of the game.

Danvers started the game behind strong shooting, with Nick McKenna and Nick Bates knocking down 4-of-5 from three in the first quarter. Over the next eight minutes, Danvers missed seven 3-pointers as Smith cut into a 12-point deficit, closing the first half on an 9-2 run and trailed 34-29.

In the second half, Danvers relied on getting the ball to Dan Connors inside while shying away from the three ball.

“We knew we had to get it inside to Dan Connors,” McKenna said. “If we get it into him, he’s either going to score the ball or have a really high percentage shot (or) a kick out for three."

McKenna ended with a game-high 20 points with a pair of rebounds and assists. Connors and Bates added 12 while Clifford and point guard Eric Martin added 11 as all Danvers starters scored in double figures. Smith was led by Seaver Rickert with a team-high 14 points with Mat Sulda added 11.

Danvers repeats: Danvers continued its title reign on Saturday with another double-digit win in the state final at the DCU Center. For a core of senior starters –- Eric Martin, Nick McKenna, Dan Connors and Nick Bates -– there is no better way to go out.

“It’s unbelievable,” McKenna said. “I mean we worked so hard to get here; back-to-back years is not something a lot of teams get to do. To win...[I] can’t even explain it.”

The final act for the Danvers repeat was the easiest. Smith Academy hung around for all of three quarters, before the opening minutes of the fourth saw Danvers finally break open a double-digit lead.

All four seniors were instrumental in Saturday’s title win. All four scored in double figures while McKenna was the only player to go for 20 points and Bates finished with a double-double of 12 points and 14 rebounds. Martin and Connors may not have filled the stat sheet, but were solid all-around, especially Connors, who was the focal point of the offense in the second half.

“He (Connors) didn’t have the greatest offensive game up to his standards, but he was tremendous defensively and rebounding,” Walsh said.

In the final minutes, the four seniors exited the floor after Martin connected on a free throw and Danvers was able to bask in the second straight title as the clock hit triple zeros.

“It’s such a special moment sharing this with my team,” Bates said. “We knew it was going to be hard, but we knew we had it in us.”

Clifford continued to shoot: Danvers sophomore Vinny Clifford could not find his shooting stroke. Through one half the sophomore was 0-for-6 from the field. The Falcons’ 3-point shooting was on display earlier as Nick McKenna and Nick Bates connected on 4-of-5 to start the game. However, Danvers went onto to miss seven consecutive, as Smith climbed into the game.

When the second half started, Danvers focused on getting the ball inside to Dan Connors. Yet, when the Falcons did go outside, Clifford was the one to make the big shots.

“We’re very demanding of certain things,” said Walsh. “When you’re a shooter, we want you to shoot the basketball. We don’t care if you miss; just keep shooting. You have to be a threat for the defense to at least want to cover you.”

In the second half, Clifford got into a groove and finishing the game connecting on his last four shots.

“He (coach) just told me to keep shooting,” Clifford said. “It was good because I had been shooting bad all game, it just felt good to finally find my shot.”

Danvers held a six-edge with when Clifford hit his first shot, a 3-pointer to up the lead to nine. Clifford hit a long two to keep the lead at nine and then buried to more threes to push the lead to double digits. With six minutes to go and Smith Academy still hanging around down 10, Clifford drilled a 3-pointer to put Danvers up 50-37.

“He doesn’t miss once he gets going,” McKenna said. “It’s amazing to see a sophomore; a kid who still barely talks to us, hit huge threes in the state championship. It’s pretty cool to see."

With Danvers core of two-time champions set to graduate, Clifford showed the promise of the Falcons future.