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D3 North: Watertown 48, Stoneham 34

LOWELL, Mass. -- The Watertown boys’ basketball team has made a habit over the years of peaking at the right time of year.

This year is no different. It defeated Middlesex League foe Stoneham 48-34 Saturday to advance to the Division 3 semifinal.

The score was not indicative of the way the game truly went. After ending the first quarter with a 11-10 lead, the Raiders opened the second with a 10-2 run and never looked back.

The run was sparked by the team’s defensive efforts, particularly from its starting guards Cesar Fulcar and Brendan Hoban. Each had particularly active hands in poking away balls and picking the pockets of Stoneham ball handlers. Watertown was able to convert their seven steals into points and keep the transition pressure on the defense.

“We utilize our strength, which is speed and quickness,” said Watertown coach Stephen Harrington. “We have real active hands. I thought we got a lot of deflections and loose balls. Then we have a tremendous rebounder in Tim Hairston (11 rebounds) to kind of clean things up for us. We were able to use our skill and speed on offense to kind of space them out and we made enough three’s to kind of separate the game I thought.”

Fulcar, Hoban, and Kevin DiPietrantonio (11 points, 5 rebounds) combined to hit five 3-pointers. Fulcar (15 points, 3 steals) launched a three from the right wing during the second quarter run that broke the game open. Hoban (14 points, 4 steals) added another from the left wing later in the quarter to help Watertown go into halftime up 27-14.

Hoban, a sophomore, will be an integral part of Watertown’s run at a state title in its next two games. He showed Saturday he is not afraid of performing on a big stage.

“He’s a heck of a player,” said Fulcar of his backcourt mate. “Just maturity wise, as a sophomore, he’s very good. I love playing in the backcourt with him. He’s always hit big shots the entire year. He’s always made big plays and coming up big and helping me out.”

Watertown opened the second half on a 15-8 run and widened its lead even more. By the fourth quarter, its guards were able to focus on handling the ball and running time off the shot clock rather than rush to score.

Thomas Nadeau and Steven McGrath had 13 and 12 points respectively to lead the way for Stoneham.

Familiar foes: This was the third time the Stoneham and Watertown played each other this season, and Saturday’s result was not much different from the first two meetings. The Red Raiders held victories of 29 and 32 points over its Middlesex League foes coming into the game. That did not mean Harrington was particularly confident his team was going to handle its business though.

“We were familiar with them, but it was difficult because they were familiar with us,” he said. “They play good defense and it was a struggle for us at times to score a bit. It went both ways. Yeah, it was good to know them, but I also don’t like playing against a team that knows us so well and that was a part of why it was hard for us to score, because they know us so well.”

It was the same sort of give-and-take for the players. The familiarity was a blessing and a curse, especially in the North final.

“In ways it was good because we’ve seen their sets and plays, but it was also bad because they’ve seen us enough that they know our strength, they know our weaknesses,” said Fulcar. “It was a challenge to make sure we did things so they weren’t taking away our bread and butter.”

In its halfcourt sets, Fulcar found particular success driving the left side of the lane. Often, the Stoneham defense would overcommit to the other side of the key or its bigs would be left flat-footed as Fulcar charged to the basket.

It was the familiarity the team had from playing Stoneham twice a season that let it know that would be exploitable Saturday.

“They were helping over along the right because in the second game we played against them this season, we were doing a lot of ball screens to the right side,” said Fulcar. “This time we tried it and I saw down the left we had an opening so we went right back to it.”

Back to the Garden: Saturday was Watertown’s sixth basketball sectional title. Watertown will play in the Division 3 state semifinals Tuesday at the TD Garden for the first time since 2011.

Fulcar was a freshman at the school when the team played Cardinal Spellman in the Garden and is excited to uphold the tradition of excellence that has been established there.

“As kids, we all went to the games, we all saw what they did,” he said. “We saw them dominate in the sectional, so coming up we knew we had to uphold the same standard as they did.

“I’m thrilled (to play at the Garden). I was up there in 2011 when they beat Cardinal Spellman, so. I’m thrilled to play up there. I’ve been wanting to play there ever since I was a kid.”