BROCKTON, Mass. -- Jamal Reuben curled around to the left wing, watched his three-point attempt sail through the net, then turned and saluted the near-capacity crowd behind him.
After trailing for all but a few moments early in tonight's pivotal showdown with Big 3 rival New Bedford, the newly-anointed No. 1 Brockton Boxers were in the midst of running off 15 straight points to end the game and avoid the upset. Reuben's three-ball gave them the lead for good with 2:11 left in the game, as the Boxers rolled to a 67-57 win that makes it 13 straight since losing to BC High in the first week of the season.
"It's our crowd, it's Senior Night, and they came to see us, so yeah I did it," the senior forward smiled when asked about the gesture to the crowd. "Man, I love when our crowd shows that support. It's a good feeling."
Momentum began to swing with 3:58 to go in the game, when New Bedford's Mark Finn was called for his fifth foul on Sayvonn Houston (16 points, 12 rebounds), who went up and under through traffic and picked up the hack on the way up. Houston converted the three-point play to knot it at 57.
Following Reuben's trey that made it 60-57, New Bedford (12-5) fumbled the ball away to give the Boxers (14-1) the ball back. Will Baker -- he of the buzzer-beating heroics in Friday's thriller over previous No. 1 Catholic Memorial -- made good on the turnover, hitting an 18-footer from the top of the key in which he pump-faked and pivoted 360 degrees before landing what turned into a high-risk shot.
The Whalers' next four field goal attempts were all three-pointers, all either hitting iron or nothing but air. Houston and Jahleel Moise were able to come up with the rebounds and feed it quickly to junior point guard Jaylen Blakely (17 points), who iced the win with a series of free throws.
That finished off a 15-0 run for the Boxers, who trailed for all but 2:25 of this contest. New Bedford didn't score a basket for the final five minutes of the contest.
It also closes what has to be one of the most impressive four-game swings performed by any team in the state thus far -- an overtime win over No. 6 Newton North on Super Bowl Sunday, a 20-point thrashing of Division 1 South darkhorse Mansfield last Tuesday, a buzzer-beater over previous top dog CM, and now a season sweep of a dangerous rival that has traditionally been a thorn in their side.
"The big difference is chemistry," Houston said. "Hard work pays off. We work hard in practice, we all come hard ready to play each game, we want to make a statement. We want to win the whole thing this year. That's our goal."
Cameron Walker led the way in scoring for New Bedford with 12 points, while Steve Wynn added 10.
Houston, no problem: As one of the state's few truly elite centers, this isn't the first time the 6-foot-6 Houston has seen a double team. The Whalers routinely harassed Brockton's powerful big man with multiple defenders, yet he fought through it all night to the tune of 16 points, 12 rebounds.
The difference with players like Houston or, say, Acton-Boxborough center Kevin LaFrancis, is discipline. Whereas some big men across the state will lift the crowd with their leaping ability and overall high-energy play around the rim, they sometimes get caught flat-footed or out of position, leading to foul trouble.
Tonight, Houston maintained proper defensive positioning and didn't get caught behind the play too much, instead using the attention from Whaler defenders to create spacing for scorers like Blakely, Reuben, Baker and Moise.
"I felt like I was working inside and it was important to get other people involved," Houston said. "Obviously I had a big game at their house (last month), so I figured the pressure would be there. They took it to me, double-teamed me, so other people had to pick up the ball. That was important."
Reuben didn't hesitate to throw glowing praise on Houston, saying, "He brings it every night."
"Honestly, I think he's the best center in the state, from what I've seen," Reuben said. "He's big, he knows what he's doing, and when it's crunch time, he wants the ball."
Houston's best quality?
"He's strong, that boy is strong," Reuben said. "He's smart, he knows what he's doing. Sometimes we may question him, but at the end of the day he knows what he's doing."
Poor shooting to start: High energy and physicality are customary to Big 3 games, and this one was no different. On the offensive end, that led to a slew of missed shots. New Bedford shot just 32 percent for the first half to take a 28-23 lead at the break, while Brockton shot just 28 percent.
"We were way to wound up to begin the game tonight," Brockton head coach Bob Boen said. "We were completely out of control for most of the first half. We were trying to do things that we had no business trying to do -- dribbling the ball too much, everyone trying to win the game playing one-on-one. We were just too excited about tonight's game -- Senior Night, last home game, Big 3 title -- just too, too excited."
Target on their back: In a season where the top spots in ESPN Boston's statewide MIAA Top 25 poll have becoming a revolving door, Brockton is the latest top dog to dodge a bullet.
With the gauntlet of a schedule they've endured for the last week and half, there is no question about who is the top team in the land right now. The Boxers have a trip to Dartmouth tomorrow night, followed by a matchup with Cambridge in the first round of the Comcast Tournament this Saturday, before things could get dicey.
They'll likely face the winner of BC High and Charlestown in Sunday's final if all goes as planned, followed by a trip to Wachusett on Feb. 21.
Not easy being No. 1.
"Rankings are good and all, anyone would be happy to be No. 1, but at the end of the day it's all about bringing your A-game every game," Houston said. "I'm not worried about No. 1. I just want to keep winning, keep my teammates involved, and hopefully we can keep this going."