Boston High School: Bob Fisher

Some quick-hit thoughts from the week’s high school basketball action around Massachusetts:

1. Don’t look now, but it’s looking like that time of year again for Lynn English. Last season, after a 4-4 start, the Bulldogs won 15 of their next 16 games before bowing out in the Division 1 North Final, their first such appearance since the fabled 2009 state final run. When they are fully healthy and in full swing, the Bulldogs’ backcourt of Freddy Hogan, Erick Rosario and Stevie Collins is among the state’s best, and they’ve proven as much with two gutsy wins over NEC rivals -– first a 15-point rally over Danvers, then a dramatic victory over Salem to avenge the loss two weeks prior.

The excuse for the early slump last year was that coach Mike Carr’s run-and-gun, full-court man-to-man pressure system takes about half a season to get used to. With a year of that system under their belts, that doesn’t feel applicable for the recent spell of three losses in four games that ended with the Danvers win. Perhaps it had more to do with the need for more assertion on the boards, a problem that tends to arise as the Bulldogs sometimes surrender the offensive boards in order to prevent a fast break going the other way. The return of Collins from injury should bolster the backcourt, but if the “Runnin’ Dawgs” are to replicate last year’s success, promising athletic forwards Danny Lukanda and Johnny Hilaire are going to be the key.

2. Went and saw Marshfield host Barnstable on Saturday night, a battle between two unranked teams in our Top 25 poll, and I got the feeling one of these teams –- maybe both -– could steal a game in what should be a wide-open D1 South tournament. Bob Fisher has won everywhere he went, which includes this latest stop at Marshfield, where he always seems to move past the first round. Against Barnstable, the Rams were 11-of-26 from three-point range in a 63-53 win, including a 5-for-7 mark in the first quarter. They get a night like that in D1 South, combined with their speed in transition, and I could see them dealing haymakers to a high seed.

Realistically, Barnstable might be a year away from being a bona fide contender, but first-year coach Chuck Kipnes has this program going in the right direction, and there is plenty to like with this young group. Two underclassmen in particular to keep an eye on are sophomore point guard Izaiah Winston-Brooks, a transplant from Boston, and junior forward Elijah Baptiste, a long and lanky slasher who excels on the wing and has deep range. Winston-Brooks is strong on the ball and vicious driving with his left, and made a few nifty dishes to post players for some sweet assists. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kipnes score an upset on somebody in the South.

3. Seeing Shabazz Napier’s jersey retired at Charlestown on Friday night conjured up a lot of memories for what was a brilliant high school career split between the Townies and Lawrence Academy. My favorite memory of Napier is his final game in an LA uniform, the 2010 NEPSAC Class B Final against St. Mark’s. The undersized Spartans were getting hammered underneath in the first half by the likes of Nate Lubick and Kalb Tarczewski, with many of LA's stars (including Napier) racking up three first-half fouls. Throughout his career Napier wowed fans with no-look passes and dagger three’s, but in this battle he took control of the game in second half by slowing the game to a crawl. Literally, each trip down he would bring the ball over halfcourt and huddle up with the other four players on the floor as he continued dribbling, milking the shot clock for all its worth. The Spartans rallied to win by 10 in that game, still one of my favorite NEPSAC games I’ve covered in my career.

4. It there is one weakness with No. 1 Springfield Putnam, it is its shooting ability. But then again, that was the Beavers’ glaring weakness last year, and they rode that deficiency all the way to a D1 state title. Call me crazy, call me whimsical, but I’m a firm believer that there is a difference between a good shooting team and a timely shooting team. The Beavers certainly aren’t a great shooting team, getting most of their baskets off turnovers and fast breaks. But I saw Ty Nichols hit a gutsy three against Nazareth (N.Y.) back in December to force overtime, and apparently he was up to his old tricks against Holyoke this week, hitting a buzzer-beater to rally the Beavers from down five with 1:30 to go. When their feet are held to the fire, the Beavers pride themselves on not being out-toughed or out-played.

5. Continuing with the “defense trumps offense” theme over in girls’ basketball, I thought No. 1 Braintree made a statement in sweeping its season series with Newton North, even if the Tigers were without star guard Infiniti Thomas-Waheed. The Tigers have been a tough out for the Wamps the second time around. Defense has never been a question in Braintree, but if you’ve been following our girls basketball coverage the last two seasons, you know my biggest criticism of the Wamps is their scoring ability. Well, they put up 70 on a pretty talented Newton North team tonight, so I guess that shows how much I know. Don’t be surprised if there is a third installment of this growing rivalry in the D1 South tournament, either.

6. Two milestones that deserve some praise: Wachusett’s Tom Gibbons, who earned his 200th win in an overtime victory over Fitchburg; and Mahar’s Chad Softic, who earned his 100th win in his seventh season at the helm of the Senators’ program. Under Gibbons’ watch, the Mountaineers have always scheduled tough, and been consistently in the upper echelon within its division. Like his brethren in the famous Gibbons coaching family of Central Mass.,Tom is as genuinely good a human being as you’ll come across.

Softic inherited a program at Mahar that was just looking to get off the canvas, and after going 1-19 his first season he brought the Senators hardware in year five, beating heavily-favored Brighton in the 2012 Division 2 State Championship. The Senators basically played six kids that on paper did not hold water to All-State Brighton players Malik James and Nick Simpson; but they ate the Bengals' much-vaunted extended 3-2 zone alive, jumping out to a 17-3 first quarter lead and making it hold up for a four-point victory. To this day, that is one of the best coaching jobs I’ve seen in my time covering high school sports in Massachusetts.

Div. 1 Boys: Newton North 75, Marshfield 49

March, 1, 2012
NEWTON, Mass. -- Thirty-two minutes.

That was the lesson Newton North coach Paul Connolly screamed to his team as he put his starters back in the game during a timeout with 5:18 left in the fourth quarter and his team ahead ahead by 22 points.

It was what some would call a head-scratching move with the game seemingly in hand. However, he knew if his team wants to make a deep run in this years Division 1 South MIAA basketball playoffs, it has to realize that not every game will be like its 75-49 victory was Thursday over Marshfield.

“At this point in the season, playing in March, it’s a tough man contest,” he said after the game. “I thought we were the tougher team tonight.”

North (18-3) jumped out to an early lead behind intense ball movement and quality outside shooting from its guards. Both teams started the game with full-court pressure on the other, but North was successful in breaking the attempted trap defense and working the ball up the floor quick enough to find the open man who was vacated by the Marshfield (13-6) pressure.

Other times, Connolly would instruct his team to get the ball to one of the better ball handlers and then he told the rest of the team to clear out down the floor, taking the defense with them and leaving the ball handler one-on-one. That proved much easier to handle than a full team press.

One of those isolated players was Michael Thorpe, who finished the game with 21 points and six rebounds. Occasionally, after Thorpe got the ball in his hands, Connolly called isolation plays for him, which allowed him to dribble and maneuver his way into space, whether it be in the paint or on the perimeter.

“Coach sees mismatches and he calls them and when your number is called, you just have to play,” said Thorpe. “Everybody’s ready to step up when their number gets called.”

Marshfield tried everything to slow down the North attack, but nothing seemed to work. Whether it was a full-court press or a 1-2-2 zone, North just could not be slowed down.

“I thought the biggest thing for us was we were reacting to any change in defense they made,” said Connolly. “I knew (Marshfield coach Bob) Fisher was going to throw some things at us. He threw some man-to-man’s, some 1-3-1’s, some 1-2-1-1, run-and-jump, box-and-one, so we prepared for everything.”

The leading scorer for Marshfield was junior Alex White, who had 13 points, 2 rebounds, and 2 steals.

Well-Rounded: An interesting statistic for the rest of Division 1 South top notice is that eight different North players scored Thursday night. Making the most of its bench will be key for the team as it moves forward and encounters teams that could potentially overwhelm them because of its lack of height.

“It’s wonderful knowing that one through eight can score,” said Thorpe. “It’s a big threat. Other teams can’t just sit down on one person, they can’t go box-and-one on one person because somebody’s going to step up and score. It’s a huge threat for us and makes a lot of teams worry when they play us.”

Sealing Them Off: While it had an explosive night offensively, North was also able to clamp down on Marshfield defensively and not allow them to get easy looks inside the paint. The Rams were able to get some short-range jump shots, but for a large portion of the game, it was only able to take perimeter shots or off-balance shots near the basket.

That, coupled with North’s ability to attack the glass, led to more scoring opportunities to take advantage of.

“Late in the season, we started to get away from our defense,” said Thorpe. “The last couple weeks of practice, we just always worked on our defense because that’s our staple. We came out and sent a message to the rest of the tournament by only letting up 49 points that we’re going to play defense this time.”

Up Next: Newton North, the No. 5 seed, will play the No. 13 seed New Bedford on Saturday. The Whalers knocked off No. 4 seed North Quincy tonight, 67-58.

With only one day of practice before game day, it would seem like Connolly’s team would be going into it blind since the teams did not play each other during the regular season. However, thanks to an experienced and forward-thinking coach, that is not the case.

“We’ve scouted everybody,” he said. “Everybody in Division 1 South, we have seen once, maybe twice. We’ve done our homework. I’ve been down this road before. We’ve done it before so we know what it takes. We do our homework and we do our job. I have an assistant coach, Tom McKniff, who has been at Newton North for 31 years, and he scouts everybody. He goes everywhere.”

He did not want to look too far down the road, though.

“We have one game, that’s it,” he said. “The best thing right now, as a coach in March, is to be able to go into the locker room and to tell your guys that you have practice tomorrow. On any given night now, one coach has to go in and there’s tears, and there’s long bus rides home. So it’s nice and we feel fortunate. We earned it, we deserved it, and I think we’re good enough to advance on. We have one more game and one more practice, so we’ll go from there.”

BC High cruises past Marshfield in D1 South

March, 4, 2011
MARSHFIELD, Mass. -– No. 4 Marshfield tied up the game at 13 with 1:40 left in the first quarter, but that was as close as the Rams came to avoiding an upset by No. 13 BC High, which rolled through the rest of the game and closed out by 23 at 66-43 as the buzzer sounded in their Division 1 South first round victory.

The Eagles move on to play at rival Catholic Memorial (14-7) on Saturday at 4 p.m.

“I think when you’re playing teams like BC, you’ve got to get them early, and we didn’t,” Marshfield head coach Bob Fisher said.

BC High (13-8) jumped out to a 7-0 lead by limiting the Rams (15-4) offensively, including holding their high scorer Barrett Murphy (23 points, nine from free throw line) to one side of the court. Playing the passing lanes aggressively led to steals and coast-to-coast layups by senior captain Bryan Hurley (20 points, eight assists, seven steals) and Jameilen Jones (10 points, 10 rebounds, six steals four blocks).

“We knew that if we could stop [Murphy] that was huge,” Hurley said of Murphy, who only scored five points and an assist in the first quarter. “Not only does he score, but he distributes the ball really well. So, we figured with our zone if we’d force him right because he likes to go left and shoot off of that. Once he slows down, and we stop their best player, that affects the rest of the team’s confidence.”

“We really feed off of our defense,” BC High head coach Bill Loughnane said. Jones, a 6-foot-2 sophomore, made a huge impact on defense and the boards, making two blocks, a steal and four rebounds in the first quarter alone. “He’s active, he’s athletic, very smart, has a very high IQ basketball wise and when he’s moving like that, he makes everyone’s job a little bit easier.”

Only down by four after the first quarter, the Rams looked to have a chance, spreading out the court and getting some shots up in the second half of the quarter, but the BC defense kept them to seven points in the second; three free throws by Murphy and two field goals by Andrew MacKinlay (five points, three rebounds).

“Murphy is our team, but we need other kids to step up,” added Fisher of Murphy, who also had 14 rebounds. No other Marshfield player tallied any statistic in double figures for the game. “They had a difficult time stepping up as a group.”

The Eagles, on the other hand, got into formation and extended their offensive set with five players sharing their 15 points in the second, manifesting nothing spectacular on the stats sheets for an individual, but doubling up on a team in the playoffs spoke volumes for the team’s cooperative effort. Leading the quarter in scoring were sophomore Malique McLaren (10 points) and junior Justin Roberts (10 points) with four points each. Junior forward Oderah Obukwelu (seven points, nine rebounds) got an offensive rebound, scored and completed a three point play for his scoring addition in the quarter, while Jones and Hurley each scored a bucket.

Hurley could have easily scored ten points in the quarter, but he has a larger picture in mind than padding his stats. He cares about his guys.

“I like to get my teammates involved early, making sure their confidence is up,” Hurley said. “Especially being the only senior, we need confidence with some of the younger guys. It’s huge. Once they get it, they can go through the roof and do anything.”

And so went the remainder of the game, as the Eagles led by 12 at the half, 19 at the end of the third and 23 when the fat lady belted her tune.

Even though two-thirds of the Eagles’ roster is above 6-foot and look down at his 5-foot-10 from when he’s commanding the offense, Hurley brings something to the table that can’t be measured with a yard stick, tape measure or even the scoreboard.

“He’s just one of those kids who leads by example,” added Loughnane. “He plays hard all the time, he’s always positive with the kids, he’s always encouraging them and it’s going to help them all later on basketball wise.”

Marshfield sinks No. 9 New Bedford in 2OT

February, 5, 2011

MARSHFIELD, Mass. -- It was typical Bob Fisher stuff at halftime.

"He came out on fire," laughed Marshfield sophomore guard Alex White when asked bout the head coach's speech, trailing by 12 at the break. "Just the usual, how he always does it. Motivates us, screams at us, whatever he has to do to get us to win."

"Relentless defense," chimed junior forward Erik Whitaker.

And at the two most crucial points of the Rams' comeback bid against much-hyped No. 9 New Bedford, both answered his call. First, it was the 5-foot-7 White putting back an air-ball three at the buzzer to force overtime. Then in the first overtime, it was Whitaker collapsing to the paint and drawing a charge with four seconds left to force another five minutes. The Rams went up by as much as five in the second and final overtime, and got key free throws down the stretch to ice an 88-86 win over the hamstrung Whalers, prompting the raucous home crowd to storm the court.

"That was a state tournament atmosphere," New Bedford head coach Tom Tarpey said. "You know, it was a great game, great high school basketball game. I'm proud of these kids. We've been through alot in these last two days, and I'm really proud of these kids. Really proud."

New Bedford was also down their top scorer and most dangerous finisher, Division 1 prospect Jules Tavares, who was reportedly suspended indefinitely for violation of team rules the night prior. Tarpey responded "I don't know" when asked about a timetable on Tavares' return.

Meanwhile, Fisher found himself praising his team's defense at the most pivotal turns of the game.

"I thought defense won the game for us," Fisher said. "You look at the scoreboard and you say, 'Jesus, neither team played defense'. But I thought our defense, our pressure, as the game went on, got to them. You're not supposed to be able to press them, but our kids got alot of buckets off the press. And our kids hung tough, even though our best player fouled out."

Yes, after trailing by as much as 15 in the second half, and 55-43 to start the fourth quarter, Barrett Murphy (33 points) led the Rams (11-2) on a furious comeback, as they outscored the Whalers 28-16 in the final frame. Murphy, who totaled 24 points in the second half, pulled up for a three-pointer from the top of the key for a 66-64 Marshfield lead with 1:01 left, to cries of "MVP!" from the student section. He then set up White's heroics by closing the Whalers' lead to 70-69 with another three from the same spot with 20 seconds left.

At the other end, Cameron Walker (20 points, seven rebounds) hit the first of two free throws to give New Bedford (9-3) a 71-69 lead with seconds remaining. Andrew Mackinley scooped up the loose ball, ran the length of the floor, and White was there in perfect position under the hoop to get the airball, tossing it back up and kissing the glass as the buzzer sounded to force overtime.

"I was looking for the pass, I didn't see one and I saw a shot go up," White said. "No one was around me, but I felt someone behind me on my back. So I got the rebound, and just went up hard with it."

Murphy then picked up his fifth foul less than two minutes into the overtime on a blocking call -- "That was a charge, no question," he chuckled later -- and sat on the bench while some of Marshfield's most unsung players turned in their best defensive rotations of the night.

Whitaker came up with his most pivotal rotation in the waning seconds of the first overtime. New Bedford's Jonathan Fortes (22 points, 11 rebounds) took the ball in the halfcourt, and three Whalers stacked the left corner for an isolation play. As the final seconds ticked away, Fortes drove to his right from the top of the key as a crowd of Marshfield players collapsed into the paint. Whitaker planted his feet, and took a hard shoulder as Fortes committed an offensive foul with 4.8 seconds to go.

Asked if he had anticipated a clear-out, Whitaker said, "I knew it was going to be an isolation, and he was going to try and drive and dish it to the kid. But I knew he was going to take one extra step when he put his head down, so I knew I had a chance to step in."

Marshfield went up by as much as five in the second overtime, 86-81, before icing the game with two trips to the free throw line at the end of the game.

Even without Tavares, the Whalers posed matchup problems in the post, especially with 6-foot-5, 260-pound center Lance Burlingame. The bulky but mobile post player, an ESPNBoston All-State selection in football, came up with 21 rebounds to go along with 13 points in the loss, tipping many balls just out of reach of Marshfield players and muscling his way into its grasp.

"That's what we need out of him," Tarpey said. "As long as he stays out of foul trouble, he should do that all game. He had been getting in alot of foul trouble lately, so that was it."