WORCESTER, Mass. -– Behind 15 points and 16 rebounds from senior forward Alex Cooper, Wachusett came up with a victory on the road tonight over No. 21 Doherty, 52-49.
Senior guards Zack Berman and Jesse Maresca -- widely considered the Mountaineers’ top go-to threats offensively -- finished with six and 17 points, respectively, but both struggled to consistently get anything going on offense. Stepping up on the offensive end, as well as on the glass, Cooper kept Wachusett going with his intensity, showing off some newly-acquired post moves and skying for offensive rebounds to keep possessions going.
“He got every big rebound when we needed it,” Wachusett head coach Tom Gibbons said, “He worked really hard in the summer, he’s worked hard on his game. I’m really proud of the way played tonight, he played like a senior. I thought [his play] was the difference in the game, to be honest with you.”
Despite beating Worcester North 63-12 earlier this week, Cooper said Gibbons was disappointed with the team’s lack of effort on the glass, something Cooper took to heart going into the showdown with Doherty.
“It was definitely something we worked on a lot in practice,” Cooper said.
Another difference in the game may have been Doherty’s inability to capitalize on Wachusett’s mistakes. Doherty finished the game with 20 turnovers, eight of those turnovers coming in the first five minutes of the game. Despite getting to the free throw line more than Wachusett, the Highlanders didn’t take advantage, shooting just 9 for 19 from the line.
In addition, Berman missed a lot of the first quarter and the first few minutes of the second quarter because of foul trouble, but sophomore Jeremiah Perez and freshman Tyler Dion were able to step in and do a sufficient job with the Mountaineers’ star senior on the bench.
“When we lost Berman, Perez came in and really lit a spark for us," Gibbons said. "He’s really explosive, there were some turnovers that were created, but he adjusted and he’s going to be just fine."
Berman, one of the best point guards in Central Mass., had nothing but praise for his fellow senior, Cooper.
“Coop played great, he stepped up when the lights were bright," Berman said. "He did a lot of good things for us. He was one of the key reasons why we won that basketball game."
Down nine at halftime, the Highlanders started to claw their way back late in the third quarter going into the middle half of the fourth. Senior guard Jamal Mustapha, who finished with 24 points (including three 3-pointers), led the run, hitting an NBA-range three followed by an acrobatic Eurostep lay-in in transition on the following play to bring Doherty within four points with just over five minutes to go.
Gibbons didn’t need to do much to instill confidence into his squad, even when Doherty was feeding of the energy of their home crowd late in the second half. Ultimately, Wachusett was able to slow down the pace of the game, and hit big free throws in the closing minutes to shut the door on the charging Highlanders.
“We just needed to keep our composure and poise," Gibbons said. "We knew they were going to make runs in this building, they’re a talented group...Our seniors just said ‘relax,’ showed some poise, and we were better with their press after that. We tried to slow down the pace a little bit and the seniors responded."
An eye for an eye:There was a little added incentive for the Wachusett seniors in winning this game: Doherty knocked the Mountaineers out of the Central Mass. Division 1 tournament last year in the second round. It’s a game the seniors haven’t forgotten, and a night that Cooper says motivated him all off-season going into this year.
“This was a revenge win for us from when they got us last year at our place,” Cooper said. “We were coming into this game with a grudge, so this [win] felt real good. That date’s been circled on my calendar for awhile now, beating them was a good feeling.”