Photo: Belmont’s Preston Jackson-Stephens driving to the basket.
The Boston Celtics had the “Big Three” – Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen – who took the team to the NBA championship in 2008.
And during Belmont High Boys’ Basketball return to the Division 2 North Finals, its had found its own “Big Three” to carry the load.
Senior guard Mac Annus and junior forwards Tim Minicozzi and Preston Jackson-Stephens have asserted their prowess in the three tournament games not just in each scoring an average of 20-plus points per game but with on-court leadership and a coolness under pressure.
And it was never more in evidence on Wednesday, March 4 in Wakefield High’s oldie-style gym where the trio accepted the challenge from a smart and quick Boston Latin Academy squad to display the grit and guts to slay the Dragons, 72-64, in an all-you-would-hope-for North semifinal.
Belmont returns to the Tsongus Arena in Lowell on Saturday, March 7, to defend its North title in an encounter with top seed Beverly – the Panthers were the 1 seed last season. Tip off is at 4:15 p.m.
The three’s dominance showed as they combined for 66 of Belmont’s 72 points vs Latin Academy with Jackson-Stephens with 26, Minicozzi 23 and Annus throwing in 17.
“They’ve been doing that all year,” said Adam Pritchard, Belmont’s long time head coach. “There are not a lot of coaches that are blessed with three guys who are scoring for that average. It’s because they are really focused players who shot a lot but most of all they are great kids.”
Annus – who was recently named the MVP of the Middlesex League – Minicozzi and Jackson-Stephens found it difficult which of the three to defend as each has the ability to drive inside, find the assist or bury an NBA-length three point shots. Pick your poison.
The opening quarter was all Dragons, using its speed – slashing to the hoop, creating steals and winning the majority of the 50/50 ball all night long – and outside shooting to nearly run Belmont off the court and out of the game early as Latin Academy’s all-everything guard Abdulahi Aden hit for three 3s in the quarter.
The second saw the track meet ended as both teams took the game inside the paint with Belmont creeping back into the game as Minicozzi and Jackson-Stephens hit 3s to end the half down with Belmont down 33-29.
The Marauders started the third continuing to connect from long distance as Annus and Minicotti hit three consecutive 3s to put Belmont in the lead for the first time, 38-37. Slowly the Marauders advantage grew as Latin Academy shots were off the mark. An Annus 3 with a little more than a minute remaining gave Belmont its biggest lead at 49-40, before ending the quarter outscoring Latin Academy 20 to 10 in the third to take a 49-43 into the final eight minutes.
The fourth quarter saw Latin Academy come off the mat with Aden’s 11 points in the quarter leading the way. Jackson Stephens would make one of two free throws before driving for a layup to give Belmont a small three point cushion only to see Latin Academy march back to cut the lead to 63-62 when Belmont fouled on the shot near the basket.
With the ball in their hands and less than a minute to play, Latin Academy blinked, as they missed both free throws with 56.1 seconds left giving Belmont the rock and a one point lead.
On the subsequent trip down court, Minicozzi drove the baseline and was chopped down to put the junior on the charity stripe. Then, in frustration rather than anger, a Latin Academy player punched the loose ball toward the benches. The official had little option but to call a technical foul.
Annus hit the two technical free throws, Minicozzi sank his pair and Belmont retained possession. A quick foul sent Jackson-Stephens to the line who hit one of two and the damage had been done as a one point lead stretched to six in just a handful of seconds.
There was a reprieve for Latin Academy when Belmont was called for its own technical for taunting and narrowed the margin to a two possession game but a rushed shot and a foul proved the margin of victory.
Pritchard told the media gaggle surrounding him after the contest that having core players who have been this far into the tournament before is a clear advantage.
“Experience is not to be overlooked in terms of confidence. But you know that confidence is hard work, it’s determination and it’s self belief and they believe in themselves and believe in their teammates.”
As for the matchup against Beverly, Pritchard was succinct.
“They’re very good,” said Pritchard. “We’re pretty good, too.”