WORCESTER, Mass. -– After a season that at many points could have been compared to a roller coaster ride, Brighton left nothing for question in their most important game of the year.
Behind 16 points from point guard Malik James, Brighton (21-6) captured the Division 2 state championship, knocking off Western Mass. champion South Hadley (17-8), 59-41.
James saved some of his best performances for the biggest stages -- take, for instance, his storming comeback in the state semifinal game against Scituate, Tuesday night at TD Garden. Today, he was unstoppable in the second and third quarters thanks to his ability to get to the rim and hit mid-range jumpers.
Brighton got out to a quick lead in the first half, something that hasn’t often been said this year about the Bengals. Known for their slow starts and ability to turn it on in the fourth quarter, Brighton jumped out to a 19-10 first quarter lead, and never looked back. South Hadley made their runs in the second half, but the Bengals were always there to slam the door shut.
A year after the heavily-favored Bengals came up short in the state title game, and months after many question Brighton’s toughness and hunger to want to get back to the state finals, they did just that -- sending James, who scored his 1000th point in today’s game, off in style to finish his career at prep school.
“It feels awesome to leave on a good note...and to just leave with a state championship and a ring,” James said. "It was more about being more mature...[last year] we were young-minded, we really didn’t know what to do on the court. We just listened to our coach, and everything was good.”
James’ progression: Bengals coach Hugh Coleman said James’ leadership is a big reason why the Bengals were able to make a run to the state title game. Teammate Jason Jones said after the Boston City League championship game, a game Brighton won, that James’ business-trip type attitude was infectious to the rest of the team -— giving them motivation and helping them focus on beating New Mission for the Boston City League title.
It was a comment that had Coleman glowing, and a factor that made the coach reflect on James’ progression as a leader.
“A lot of times I’ve been wondering how much he’s listened to me, how much he’s growing off the court," Coleman said. "What I’ve realized from this season and these playoffs is that he takes it in, but it shows a lot more on the court. That’s meant everything for us.
"His maturity has come so much more on the court. I’m proud of him for that—he’s a special, special young man.”
Coleman still expresses his appreciation for getting the Brighton job four years ago. James enrolled at Brighton by chance, the same year that Coleman began his duties as the head-man of the Bengals.
“I lucked up and got the job at Brighton four years ago, I probably wasn’t supposed to get it, but I did," he said. "A lot of people recruited him out of middle school to go to different schools, but he ended up at Brighton with me.
"I’m glad I’ve been able to be a part of his life, and him a part of my life -- he’s made me a stronger person, and I hope I was able to rub off on him.”
Learning from O’Brien: Coleman announced after the game that he would be dedicating the victory to his good friend and mentor Jack O’Brien, the famed former Charlestown coach who won five Division 2 state championships over a period of six seasons from 2000 to 2005. Coleman’s squad this year was the first team since O’Brien’s 2003 Townies team to win both the Boston City League title and the state title. Coleman was an assistant on O’Brien’s staff for that unprecedented run, while his younger brother Derek was a captain on that 2003 squad.
“He should be coaching," Coleman. "In my opinion he’s the best coach in the state of Massachusetts. Not just because he won games, he changed the lives of so many of us young men at Charlestown."
Coleman and his coaching staff constantly express their pride in having the opportunity to shape young men. Forward Nick Simpson (11 points), who failed off the team last year, is now the Bengals’ best student -— making the honor roll in each of the first two quarters of this year. James, a player with tons of talent whose motor has sometimes been questioned, played better in the state tournament than almost any other player in the state.
“My coaching staff...the Bengal five: those guys, we strategize after every game, we talk about not just basketball, we talk about what’s going on with these guys in their lives off the court," Coleman said. "It was really special to accomplish those things, but it never would have happened without the hard work of those guys."
O’Brien was long known for being a father-figure in the lives of his players—whether it was making sure they were fed, getting on them about their grades, teaching them about integrity, or introducing his players to goal-setting, his example is one that Coleman energetically replicates at Brighton.
“What I learned from Jack O’Brien at Charlestown was winning was a compliment to the young men [becoming] better people," Coleman said. "That’s my passion, helping these young men become better people—and through that process, we were able to be successful today. I’m very, very proud.”