CHARLESTOWN, Mass. -- At this time last year, Charlestown made the trek West, down Route 146, to deliver a haymaker to a Whitinsville Christian squad considered the state's tallest lineup.
This afternoon, the Crusaders came East to Bunker Hill, with a different look for the Townies -- smaller, quicker, more surgical -- and the result was very nearly a different outcome. The Crusaders hung with Charlestown through three quarters, before the Townies pulled away in the fourth, outscoring Whitinsville 31-14 in the final frame en route to an 87-69 victory.
"That team's very good, I thought that was the best shooting team we saw," Charlestown head coach Edson Cardoso said. "They're very well balanced, with a real good point guard, big man, two-guard, so I knew coming into this game it was going to be a battle. I told the guys, 'You're going to see a team like this in the state tournament, eventually down the line."
The Townies (14-3), played just seven due to health (Jawhari Dawan-Abdullah, stomach bug) and off the court issues (Gary Braham, suspension). But they saw all five of their regular starters reach double-figures, with senior point guard Rony Fernandez (26 points, four assists) leading the way. Senior forward Tyrik Jackson (12 points, 13 rebounds) came up big on the glass again, while Tyrese Hoxter (16 points, seven assists), Omar Orriols (13 points) and Iser Barnes (12) contributed some big shots from the perimeter to keep the defense stretched out.
But early on, the Crusaders (12-2) gave them fits with the methodical way they broke through the Townie's 2-3 zone with some of the most disciplined and precise ball movement they'd seen in a while. Junior point guard Colin Richey (23 points) funneled the offense down to the baseline, finding a player planted right in the heart of the zone and kicking to either the baseline or either wing.
Whitinsville shot nearly 40 percent from the field, getting good looks from the short side from Tyler VandenAkker (12 points, eight rebounds) and Jesse Dykstra. Grant Brown (10 points) came up with some big shots from the perimeter as well.
"We decided to extend a little bit more on the short corner, because they hit about four shots in a row from the short corner," Cardoso said. "We also decided to have the opposite guard extend even more on shooter No. 2 (Tim Dufficey). So we made some extensions in the second half, did a little better job -- not a great job, but it helped us get the victory."
To start the fourth quarter, Barnes completed a 6-0 run by ripping the ball out of his defender's hands at midcourt and landing a breakaway layup. A few possessions later, Hoxter found Jackson underneath the rim for an easy tip-in and 68-59 advantage.
Then with 1:37 to go, sophomore Taris Wilson hit the first of two monster breakaway slams, this one making it 76-63 to essentially put the game in hand.
On to MP Machine: The Townies get a rematch with Madison Park on Tuesday night, in their home gym, and the stipulations are pretty straightforward: winner locks up the final seed for the Boston City Championships at the end of the month. Brighton, New Mission and East Boston have all punched their ticket.
"The kids have been talking about a chance to do this Tuesday night," Cardoso said. "We're going to play hard and leave it all on the table. Hopefully these guys come out and execute the game plan, and have fun out there."
In their first meeting, on Jan. 19 at the Matadome, the Cardinals cruised to an 81-69 win that wasn't as close as the score might indicate. The Townies were without Fernandez and Orriols, and on the court they looked that less of a potent offense. Since that loss to Madison, the Townies have reeled off eight straight wins and jumped back into ESPN Boston's statewide poll (the Townies were the preseason No. 2 team in the land before plummeting out of the Top 25 altogether).
It goes without saying, the Townies are licking their chops.
"We're going in for the kill," Barnes said.
"We're focused," Hoxter added. "They're not going to come in here and punch us in the mouth. They're going to feel how we were feeling after that loss."
Hot from the field: The Townies outrebounded the Crusaders 16-7 in the final frame, giving way to many key transition points that helped ice the lead and the win. From the glass, WC still held a slim 35-33 advantage.
But down at the other end, the Townies had a terrific night from the field, shooting nearly 58 percent overall. That was aided by a 7-for-17 effort from three-point range, including three 3's each from Fernandez and Orriols.
Praise for Richey: Last season, New Mission head coach Cory McCarthy was throwing around high praise for the then-sophomore Richey, calling him "a suburban kid that plays urban".
Consider Cardoso another Boston City League coach that's a fan.
"He's tough," Cardoso said. "He's one of the toughest guards coming out of his league, and I think he's going give a lot of teams problems in the state tournament, because how do you stop a kid like that?"
Turning point? Following last season's loss to Charlestown in its home gym, WC coach Jeff Bajema greeted his players in the locker room and told them, "Guys, we can win states."
Sure enough, the Crusaders never lost another game the rest of the way, picking up their first Division 3 state title since 2005 at the DCU Center in Worcester. After that game, Bajema spoke to reporters about how much the whitewashing by Charlestown seasoned them for what to expect in the state tournament.
Given how much more competitive the Crusaders were this time around, could this be seen as another momentum shift?
"Hopefully, a game like this will lead us to better things," Bajema said. "But we've got a tough one Tuesday (against Holy Name), so we'll see."