AMHERST, Mass. -- There are several defining reasons as to why Putnam has been regarded as the best boys basketball program in Massachusetts from day one of the season.
For starters, the Beavers have bought into the theory of team play. They play an unselfish-style of offense, looking to distribute the ball all-over the court. In addition, Putnam likes to be patient with the ball in its hands, refusing to force any shot that isn't there.
Such strategy has worked wonders for this team and, once again, it was witnessed throughout Friday night's Division 1 Western Mass. final at UMass' Curry Hicks Cage. The top-rated Beavers completed phase one of their three-tier plan to win a second straight state championship after thwarting West Springfield 77-58.
Putnam (24-0) will face Central Mass. champ St. John's of Shrewsbury, a 55-48 winner over Franklin, in Tuesday's state semifinal to be held at Springfield's MassMutual Center beginning at 7:30 p.m. The Beavers pulled out an overtime victory over Mansfield in last year's D1 Final to claim their first state crown.
"Any adversity that has been thrown at us this year, these kids have been able to overcome it," Putnam head coach William Shepard said. "They just keep digging. Our motto is one practice at a time and one game at a time. Now that we've won Western Mass. we can start to concentrate on the states. To be honest, we didn't even talk about states before tonight. All we were looking to accomplish was win a Western Mass. championship because there is some very good basketball out here and it's not an easy thing to do. Our goal was just to get out of this section and move on.
"Everything is team-first concept here. If you are a player looking to average 30 points-per-game then Putnam is not the place to come to. It's all about team here and will continue to be and that's a reason for our success."
The Beavers set the precedent early in this one on the Terriers and never looked back. A pair of 3-point buckets from Johnathan Garcia and David Murrell helped stake Putnam out to 12-2 lead before closing the first quarter on top 21-9.
The Beavers patented 'look for the open man offense' never took a step backwards on this night. As a result, West Springfield quite frankly did not have the horses to hang with them.
Murrell, a senior forward, led the way with 20 points. Garcia, a junior, followed up with 16, despite getting into early foul trouble.
"We always try to stay focused on that particular game that we are playing," Murrell said. "It's a team-first here. As coach reminds us all the time, we just take things one step at a time and not to look ahead. We had some new players come into the program this year but as a group, we all felt that we could go after another state championship. The new kids on this team have bought into that as well."
With the Beavers beginning to pull away midway through the second quarter, West Springfield (16-7) realized it needed to revert to a more-perimeter style offense in an effort to get back into this contest. The strategy was to get senior Andy McNulty and Paul Bessette open from the outside to launch shots, including treys when the opportunity presented itself.
Unfortunately for the guard duo, many of those chances would not fall thus allowing Putnam to square out inside the paint and virtually limit the Terriers to one shot each time down the floor. McNulty led his team with a team-high 18 points, while Bessette chipped in with 13. But their combined efforts was not enough to dethrone the Beavers.
Leading 34-25 at the half, Putnam opened the second half with a 15-3 run that officially put this contest in the books. During the span, both Murrell and Garcia netted six points apiece.
"Overall I feel that we needed to prepare harder this year than last year," said Garcia. "We now have a target on our backs and everyone is coming to get us and we knew we are going to get everyone's best game even from not so good teams. We knew West Springfield would come at us hard but we also knew that we needed to match their intensity and that's what we did."
Trailing by 19 points with three minutes to go in the third quarter, the Terriers put up a mild comeback threat late in the frame as they closed it out after putting up 13 points spearheaded by five points from McNulty to trail 54-43 heading into the fourth.
But playing a game of catch-up against a multi-dimensional team like Putnam is not the best-case scenario to be in. Looking to slow things down a bit, West Springfield tried to foul as much as possible for much of the final two quarters. But none of it seemed to distract the Beavers off their game. Putnam continued to maintain its two-digit lead over the final eight minutes.
Leading 61-49 early in the fourth, Ki-Shawn Monroe (11 points) added to the Terriers' misery by burying consecutive 3-pointers to extend the Beavers advantage to 67-51 with five minutes left.
Putnam finished off West Springfield down the stretch, out-scoring them 10-2. Junior Ty Nichols chipped in with 10 points for the Beavers. West Springfield senior guard Kevawn Lord also contributed 10 points.
"Putnam has a lot of very good players and they play well together," said Terriers head coach Chris Gerber. "It's amazing the job they've done in the way they share the ball, defense and don't care who scores. How do you get ready for a team like that? Who do you focus on? Who do you box out? They're really a special team. They're well-coached, disciplined, unselfish and play good defense.
"Obviously in the second half we had to muck it up a bit and try to make it as long as possible and I thought our kids did a heck of job of fighting and keeping it close at times. We had nine seniors who didn't want it to end but frankly we got beat by the best team in the state."
D1 West Girls: Springfield Central 49, Northampton 35
The Golden Eagles out-scored the Blue Devils 26-16 over the final half to win the Division 1 girls Western Mass. championship.
No. 1 Central (21-3) will await the winner of Saturday's Central Mass. title game between Holy Name and Westford Academy in the state semifinal to be held at the Mass Mutual Center on Tuesday beginning at 5:45 p.m.
Senior forward Kendra Hicks led the Golden Eagles with a game-high 16 points. She also had 13 rebounds. Senior Janea Bunn grabbed a game-high 15 boards and chipped in with 9 points. Ishanna Brown also tossed in 9 points for Central. No. 2 Northamption (18-5) was paced by Maya Kerteter's 11 points.
The Blue Devils held a three point at the end of the opening quarter. However Central would take the lead midway through the second and were never headed for the remainder of the contest.