Photo: Belmont’s Daniel Yardemian (center) being fouled by Cathedral’s Manny Green.
Can a 16-6 team quietly enter the playoffs?
Belmont High School Boys’ Basketball is doing just that, going about its business mostly under the radar as it enters the Division 2 North sectional tourney play on Wednesday, March 1 against Chelsea High School.
And that might be a good thing for the Marauders as opponents may overlook a team that played undefeated Division 1 powerhouse Arlington High close away to the SpyPonders, defeated City school Boston English, and took apart archrival and Division 3 North top-seed Watertown in the season while finishing second to the aforementioned SpyPonders in the Middlesex Liberty division.
“I really like this team,” said Belmont’s long-serving head coach Adam Pritchard a week ago. “We have an undersized center (senior captain Paul Ramsey) who I think is at least league co-MVP and just a lot of players who work well together. It’s a real scrappy team.”
That gritty style of play – regulars Cal Christofori and Ben Jones starred on the gridiron for the Marauders this season – was highlighted on Thursday when Belmont traveled to the bandbox gymnasium of Cathedral High in Boston’s South End to end the post-league season against the 14-4 Panthers who are the second seed in the Division 3 South sectionals and are expected to win not just the South but the Eastern Mass title.
Why put such an arduous task before his team as the playoffs loom, having ended the season on an impressive 6-1 run with wins over dreaded Watertown and a big tough team from Billerica on Seniors Night.
“How are you going to get better if you don’t play the best,” said Pritchard before the game as the court rocked with the stands filled with happy parents and classmates on the Panthers’ senior night.
“It’s loud like a playoff game. I want [the Marauders] to experience this atmosphere against a talented team,” said Pritchard.
It was a game that did not disappoint in competitiveness and for just plain ol’ hoops FUN. The first half was played at breakneck speed as both teams resembled Usain Bolt as they sprinted up and down the floor with the ball being heaved the length and breadth of the court and threes raining from downtown. All that was missing was Dick Vitale yelling “Oh baby! It’s prime time in Boston!”
That wide open play favored Belmont as sophomore point guard Daniel Yardemian used his quickness to open space to make the assist or drilling the J tallying scoring 14 points in the first, joining Ramsey’s 13 to allow Belmont to sprint out to a 29-18 first quarter lead.
The Belmont trapping defense where two and even three Marauders surrounded the Panthers’ guards bothered the hosts into committing a slew of turnovers and hurried shots which gave the Marauders’ the edge. Yardemian hit two of three foul shots for a foul on a 3-attempt followed by senior Daron Hamparian; the Marauders were cruising by 15, 46-31 with 4:20 remaining in the second.
“He’s really important for us. It’s something special when you have someone who was the freshman [team] point guard playing that position as a sophomore and doing it at this level,” said Pritchard of Yardemian.
But Cathedral wasn’t laying down for the visitors, going on an 11-0 run culminating in a 3 from NBA distance by the Panthers all-star senior guard Calvin Cheek, cutting the lead to 4 at 46-42 with 1:11 left in the half. In the final minute, Christofori scored all five of his second quarter points including a buzzer beating 3 to allow Belmont to hit the half with a seven-point lead, 51-44.
The third quarter saw it rain 3s for both sides as the Panthers’ kept running. Belmont was equal with the spurt as a Ramsey basket, and foul shot pushed up the lead to eight, 59-51, four minutes in the quarter. Cathedral then upped their game and behind Cheek took a 67-66 lead only for Hamparian to throw up his third of four 3s for the night to give Belmont its last advantage at 69-67 with less than a minute to go.
But from that point it became the Cheek’s Show as the senior displayed a shooters eye, a command of the floor and a leader’s approach in coaching on and off the court, positioning teammates and yelling encouragement. He dished, drove and drained the key shots, in the first minute of the final stanza draining two from the charity strip and a 3 after stripping the ball to start the transition.
Before you knew it, the Panthers went on a 14-3 run as the hosts slowed the play and allowed its bump and grab zone defense to stifle Belmont to lead 83-72 with two to go.
Give Belmont credit for marshaling a spirited comeback. As Cathedral missed free throws to extend its lead, Ramsey and Yardemian hit driving hoops while Hamparian swished his final 3.
With Cheeks on the line and the Panthers up by 3, the game’s star faulted on both shots giving Belmont a final attempt to tie it up with a 3. But Yardemian’s contested fling was short with less than 10 seconds, and the Marauders fate was sealed, taking the fall, 86-81.
For Pritchard, the trip to the parking-challenged South End (hint: next year bring the Panthers to Belmont) was well-worth the effort and disappointment.
“For us, it was a really good preparation for tournament-wise and being in this atmosphere where you have to play through adversity. I thought our effort was there, so I’m not unhappy.
“We have things to work on, and we’ll have time to do those,” said Pritchard.