BOSTON -- Amid the flurry of a 7-2 Acton-Boxborough run to start the contest in tonight's Division 1 North final at TD Garden, Andover head coach James Tildsley bellowed a simple request to his squad on the floor -- and, to Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the Year Nicole Boudreau in particular: “Wake up.”
Upset with his team’s effort following the opening tip, Tildsley called a timeout with over five minutes to play in the opening frame, immediately calling out his star player for an apparent lack of focus.
“I was really giving her the business,” Tildsley said. “She wasn’t covering her girl and she threw up a couple of bad shots. But one thing about her is, she responds. I can really get in her face, and she knows. And she goes out and executes.”
And from that point on, the defending state champion Golden Warriors began asserting themselves, ending the first half on a 31-15 run and withstanding a late, fourth-quarter run by Acton-Boxborough to prevail, 57-51.
Boudreau recounts the episode: “Mr. Tildsley looked at me and said, ‘You’re playing like absolute crap.’ and hey, I couldn’t argue with him,” Boudreau said. “I didn’t really come out and play the way I could. I love when Mr. Tildsley gets in my face and tells me stuff like that because it just encourages me even more. I knew I had to step up.”
Andover (25-1) now faces South sectional champion New Bedford on Monday night for a spot in the State Championship game.
More than anything, offensive displays from Boudreau and A-B's Elizabeth Belanger were at the focal point of this sectional matchup. Belanger accrued a team-high 25 points (16 in the second half) to go along with 13 rebounds and two steals. Her counterpart, who was limited to three points through the first eight minutes, put together a game-high 34-point performance, highlighted by a buzzer-beating three pointer before the half from mere feet inside the mid-court line.
She then walked toward her teammates, her pointer finger stoically raised in the air.
Entering the second half, Boudreau hit her team’s first two field goals (both three pointers) to conclude a 9-0 run by herself. Minutes later, Belanger had her turn, registering an unanswered eight points in a row for the Colonials, while also drawing a fourth foul on Andover senior guard Natalie Gomez-Martinez (eight points, three rebounds) with 3:38 to go in the third.
“It definitely became a different game because Natalie is one of our leaders out there,” Boudreau said.
Thankfully for the defending champions, adjustments made without Gomez-Martinez allowed them to enter the final stanza up by 17 points.
Yet the Colonials proved resilient, battling back in the fourth behind five points from senior guard Hannah Foley (11 points, four steals) and eight from Belanger, who reentered the game in the second half after getting kicked in the head diving for a lose ball midway through the second quarter.
With about three minutes to play, the Colonials cut Andover’s lead to seven at 56-49, but couldn’t move any closer until Belanger hit a layup with mere seconds remaining to produce the final score.
“We come out in the fourth quarter, and in the first four minutes, we play unbelievable,” Tildsley said. “I’m looking and we’re up 19. I look again we’re only up ten. You’ve got to give [Acton-Boxborough] a ton of credit. They’re well coached and they battled the whole game.”
Acton-Boxborough (20-4) outrebounded Andover 37-27 in the game, and 9-5 on the offensive glass.
The Warriors recorded 11 steals and constantly pestered Acton-Boxborough in the backcourt with its 2-1-2 trap defense, mainly through pressure from junior guard Ally Fazio (Four points) and Gomez-Martinez.
“Making steals and running,” said Gomez-Martinez. “That’s our game.”
The head coach agreed.
“The key to the game was our pressing defense,” Tildsley said. “Every time we got a good pressing defense we got turnovers and we capitalized off the turnovers. We’ve been doing that all year. I mean, we’re not a good set-offense team. We’re a team that has to really press and score off of our press.”
All told, the showcase of Boudreau and Belanger on this stage will be remembered, said first-year Acton-Boxborough head coach Kim Landry.
“Any time you can get two marquee players in a matchup in this sort of atmosphere is great. It’s great for basketball. It’s great for the fans. It’s fun for coaches in terms of strategies."