DANVERS, Mass. -- If there's any doubt about East Boston head coach Malcolm Smith's ability to utilize his resources, let tonight's result against St. John's Prep stand as Exhibit A -- and close the case shut.
Dressing just nine players, and without starting forwards Kenny Ramos and Kwandell Bush due to a violation of team rules -- certainly not the first time he's disciplined a key player, nor the last -- the Jets turned in one of their most inspired defensive first halves of the regular season. They held the host Eagles to just 16 points in the first two quarters, then staved off a furious fourth-quarter rally to win, 58-52.
"With this team, it's a bunch of guys that, hey, they just want to do it," Smith said. "They want to do it for their hometown, they want to do it for where they come from. I told them going into tonight's game that, listen, we've got to play this like we're in Dorchester House in the preseason fall league.
"I said fellas, you know, we're undermanned and we've always had some adversity, whether it's dressing five there or seven there, so you've got to take that mentality there. And we always play hard, but you've got to bring it in here a little bit more structured and disciplined, and that's what they did."
The Jets (12-4) dominated the first half, forcing a slew of turnovers with dogged backcourt pressure and sideline traps to make up for their lack of scoring ability at the offensive end. They took a 24-16 lead into the break, and led as much as 41-24 with under three minutes to go in the third quarter before the Eagles (10-6) mounted an impressive rally.
Down 43-32 to start the final frame, Prep cut the lead to 47-45 when Mike Carbone came up with a strip steal at halfcourt and heaved a lob to Steve Haladyna (31 points, eight rebounds), picking up a foul in the process. He missed the free throw, but capped a perfect 5-for-5 start from the field for the quarter with the lay-in.
At the other end, Eastie broke through some intense Prep backcourt pressure to convert some key field goal attempts down the stretch, none bigger than a dunk by Will March (16 points) with under a minute to go. With the Eagles gambling big time in moving their 2-3 zone high up in the halfcourt and converging on guard Pat Santos in the backcourt, he was able to get the ball over the top to a wide open March underneath and make it 57-49.
Freshman point guard Marcos Echevarria hit a three-pointer to close it to 57-52 with 31 seconds left, and fouled Santos to send him to the line and push the lead back out to six. But on the ensuing possession Freddy Shove missed a driving layup with 14 ticks to go, and three bodies converged on the loose board for a jump ball, and Eastie possession.
Helping out: The Jets were most impressive defensively in pressuring the backcourt, and providing help on the perimeter. Anybody who has watched Eastie over the years knows an aggressive press defense is its source of pride, and for the first 16 minutes an array of guards made life difficult for whoever took the ball in, harrassing them from the baseline to over halfcourt. From there, players like Zack Gattereau, Travon Moore, Ian Jones, Andre Senior and Kyle Fox were able to lend a hand.
In the halfcourt, the Prep is traditionally a tough out for its surgery running the motion offense -- a scheme that, by nature, is difficult to gameplan for. But whenever Connolly called for a pick-and-roll, an Eastie defender was usually in proper place on the help side to take a good angle and try to pick the ball off.
Those two areas led to a number of turnovers, both forced and unforced, including 11 total team steals.
"We worked on that yesterday," Smith said of the pick-and-roll defense. "And I don't really think it settled in. But you know, in the pre-game today, [I told them] 'Fellas listen, on their pick-and-rolls we've got to play it NBA-style'. They liked that, and I just thought it was phenomenal today.
"Ain't much I had to do with it, but we worked on it yesterday and it didn't really go that well. But today they communicated exceptionally well on it, they were able to hedge on everything else."