LEXINGTON, Mass. – In their first meeting this season, the Belmont boys' basketball team raced out to an early lead, then held off a furious Lexington comeback attempt.
On Tuesday night, the Minutemen repaid the favor, scoring the first 15 points of the game en route to a 75-68 win over the visiting Marauders.
“The last time we played them, we lost by six,” said senior Hugh O’Neil. “It was close, and it had been back and forth, so we knew it was important to get out early on them because they did it to us the first time. At practice yesterday, we talked about really taking it to them and proving to them that we are who are, and not who we were.”
Who they were the last time the teams battled was a scuffling 4-8 squad trying to find their basketball identity. Rattling off seven straight wins, and eight in nine games, it’s become very clear who the Minutemen are now.
“Lexington played like a team who was playing for something beyond just tonight,” said Belmont coach Adam Pritchard. “We played like a team whose season ended tonight. That’s the way teams play when they don’t have a postseason to go to. They came to play and we didn’t.”
It was O’Neil who kicked off the early scoring barrage, accounting for the 13 points of the game himself. He finished the first quarter with 19 on the way to a 35 point showing in the win for the Minutemen (12-9).
“He has great length and he has a nice high release,” said Lexington coach Reggie Hobbs. “At 6-6, he can be a little bit of a mismatch problem and he was able to exploit that tonight. He took a lot of good shots. He’s done that in stretches for us before, scoring in bunches. He had 18 points in the second half of a win over Woburn earlier this year, so it’s not a surprise when he does something like that.”
Lexington finished the first quarter with a 17-point lead, built on that in the second quarter and led by as much as 25 midway through the third.
Belmont (14-4), the Middlesex League champ, charged back into things late in the third and early in the fourth – mostly behind the scoring ability of Adam Kleckner, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds in the loss. With just under three minutes to go, the Marauders slashed the lead to just five points.
“We kept our composure,” said Hobbs. “They’re obviously a great team, they won our league. We knew they were going to make a run – they have too many weapons not to. For a young group, I thought it was good for us to be in that situation and not give in.”
O’Neil, who also had 11 boards in the win, took matters into his own hands to slow the comeback, netting eight points in the fourth quarter. With the lead down to five, he connected on his third 3-pointer of the night to push the lead back to eight. A defensive stop and an outlet pass to David Barner quickly made it a 10-point lead, effectively ending any comeback hopes for Belmont.
“Hugh did everything for us tonight,” said Hobbs. “We ask him to do a lot of different things – defend, handle the ball a bit against pressure, make good decisions. That’s what you want from your senior captain.”
Energy Boost: With just over 3:30 remaining in the third quarter and Lexington enjoying a 23 point lead, an errant in-bounds pass from the baseline by the Marauders bounced back behind half court and headed for the other end of the floor.
As the nearest Belmont player closed in on the ball, Barner went racing up the floor toward the ball. He dove across the floor, screeching as he caught up to the basketball. In one motion he got his hand on the ball, redirected it off the Belmont player’s leg and out of bounds, giving Lexington the ball under their hoop.
“He never stops,” said O’Neil. “It’s incredible. He’s always up and down the floor. He thrives the most in transition, but even on defense he’s always flying up the court.”
The minutemen added two points on the in-bounds play to push the lead to 25.
“High energy. He really has high energy,” said Hobbs. “We talk about trying to win the quarter. I yell ‘next’ a lot to get them to play the next play and when you make a mistake, can you transition and make the next play. I yelled it in the third and fourth quarter a lot tonight, and that effort right there was a good job of it. He plays so hard and we feed off of his effort and his emotion.”
Barner kept that motor running the whole game, pouring in 23 points to go with eight steals, six assists, four rebounds and two blocks.
The junior guard teamed with sophomore Glenn Smith to form an impressive backcourt on both ends of the floor. Especially effective on the defensive end, the duo combined on 14 steals in the win.
“We talked a lot about ball pressure and we predicate our defense on what my assistant calls unrelenting ball pressure,” said Hobbs. “What we work on with them is not gambling, because they’re good enough to play defense without doing so. It’s a tremendous advantage for us to have.”