Photo: Belmont’s Ben Lazenby heading towards the basket during the quarterfinal match between Belmont and Tewksbury.
Belmont High Boys’ Basketball Head Coach Adam Pritchard looked like he had just wrestled an alligator or some wild beast – his hair in a riot, shirttail out, tie comically askew, pants twisted – coming down the stairs from the second-floor locker room at Tewksbury High School’s gym.
In fact, Pritchard and the team he coached, had just put up a monumental struggle for 32 minutes on the hard court. A struggle they just could not come out on top.
In a tightly played and exciting contest decided in the final seconds, Belmont was nipped at the line by host Tewksbury, 58-56, in the quarterfinals of the Division 2 North Sectionals.
With Belmont down by two points with 5.8 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, junior co-captain Matt Kerans missed the front end of a one-and-one from the free throw line. While Belmont got the ball for a final shot, there was only .2 of a second left on the clock, just enough for a prayer.
A desperation full-court pass was intercepted and the game and a topsy-turvy season – filled with injuries, statement wins, and a few surprising upsets – came to an end as the capacity hometown crowd cheered.
“That was a good team; they were 19-4 coming in. We were on the road coming to a team that had a lot of success, and they play the game well,” Pritchard said hoarsely.
“It was a two-point game, a game of so many different possessions, so many statistics, to say that it came down to any one thing is nice for some people, but I don’t believe it,” Pritchard said.
“You could say everyone was having a hard time making free throws, maybe a shot here or a turnover there or having the poise. Whatever it is, it’s a collection of things. As a coach, I can think of a lot of things I would do differently
For the first time this season, Belmont’s long-time guard tandem of Kerans and senior co-captain Ben Lazenby were matched up with a pair of opposing guards – co-captains senior Alex DiRocco (18 points) and junior Nate Tenaglia (19 points) – who were just as talented shooting as they were on defense. Critically, the Redmen duo were just as quick as Kerans (12 points) and Lazenby (8 points), negating Belmont’s speed cutting to the basket or driving to the hoop.
That advantage was evident at the start of the game when Tewksbury couldn’t stop making shots – DiRocco and Tenaglia each hit a three and a two in the first – while guard/forward junior Justin Derrah (scorched the Marauders with 7 of his game 13 points to initially lead by 10-2 and 17-5 in the final seconds until junior guard Cole Bartels (9 points) hit his own three at the buzzer to cut the lead to nine (17-8) after the first.
Early in the second, Belmont’s senior Adam Kleckner (18 points) was hit with his third foul when a technical was assessed to the 6’5″ center after he tangled up with DiRocco (the technicals to both players were harsh in how physical the game was played). Pritchard took Kleckner out and later Kerans with the Marauders down 23-15 at the five-minute mark.
“I was hoping to keep it close with the subs in,” said Pritchard.
Better than that, the combination of four seniors (Peter Durkin, Seth Altman, co-captain Tom Martin and Jaemar Paul) and Bartels kept chipping at the lead as Tewksbury’s aim began to fail them. Leading the Marauders was Paul, who delivered offensively – a pair of baskets and free throws – and on defense as he presented a physical challenge to the Redmen under the basket.
“We got incredible effort from the kids off the bench,” said Pritchard.
When Bartels stole a pass and connected on his second three of the half with four minutes to play, the Marauders finished a 10-0 run to lead 25-23. The swarming Belmont defense allowed Tewksbury only 8 points in the quarter and provide the visitors a two-point margin (27-25) at the half.
“We had our top three scorers come out of the game at the same time and they gave us a two-point lead. That was amazing. It is about the team and not about one or two so that was one of the most impressive things I will remember,” he said.
The second half began like the first, but this time Belmont had the hot hand and it was possessed by Kleckner who began using his strength and height – four inches taller than anyone on the Tewksbury bench – to muscle his way to the basket, dropping 14 of his 18 points in the third stanza.
But just as Belmont was gaining momentum and the lead at 37-31, DiRocco and Tenaglia proved unstoppable from beyond the three-point arc, hitting five 3s – two by DiRocco from beyond the NBA 3-point line – to knot the score at 44 entering the final eight minutes.
It took two minutes for either team to score when Lazenby made his only 3 pointer before he sank a flying deuce and put in a layup with a nifty pass by Bartels to up the Belmont advantage to two, 51-49 with 4:40 to play.
Help for Tewksbury came from an unlikely source; junior forward Adam Gajjaoui – who had been badly missing the few shots he took – started connecting, knocking down a critical 3 pointer to give Tewksbury a two-point lead, 54-53, with three minutes to play and then put in a layup to give the Redmen a three-point edge, 56-53.
Both teams made critical plays on defense – Kleckner taking a charge and Tenaglia stealing a pass to the wide open Kleckner – while the offenses stalled as Belmont missed a pair of 3 pointers (Belmont would end the night hitting five 3’s to Tewksbury’s 11). Belmont could not take advantage of fouls on Kleckner and Kerans as the Redmen were assessed four fouls into the final minute of the game.
It came down to free throws as Tenaglia missed the front end of a one-and-one with 33 seconds left, a play in which Bartels was fouled. He made one of two to pull Belmont within a pair, 56-54. Needing to foul, Belmont picked on substitute senior co-captain Joe Csokmay who made his only two points of the game count, allowing the Redmen to lead by four, 58-54, with 28 seconds remaining.
It took time for Belmont to take a shot that turned out to be a spectacular one as Kerans threw up a behind his back prayer that bounced on the rim before dropping.
Quickly fouling, Belmont was given a potential “Get Out of Jail” card as Derrah missed his one-and-one and Kerans was fouled from behind with 5.8 seconds left.
You know what happened next.
Pritchard said this year’s squad – that includes nine seniors: Kleckner, Lazenby, Durkin, Martin, Bryan Scordino, Altman, Pablo Reimers, and Alex Berets – were “amazing kids, great leaders from great families. I have been incredibly blessed to have coached this group of kids because they are all going to go out and be successful.”
“They were respectful, they listened and that’s because they cared. That’s something special.”