WORCESTER, Mass. -- With two seconds remaining on the shot clock, eight seconds remaining in the game, and with the score tied, Worcester Academy had to pull off a miracle if they wanted to win against favored Cushing Academy.
It was their ball, and Hilltoppers head coach Jamie Sullivan burned two timeouts to draw up the perfect play to get the upset. In the end, the play didn't end up being perfect, but it most definitely worked. Worcester won the game, 66-63, after Olivier Paul-Betu knocked down a wild three-pointer off of the backboard.
“We were trying to run a back screen to get a layup but they cut it off. Olivier [Paul-Betu] did a good job of coming to the ball and getting the shot up there,” Sullivan said. “Hey, we’ve lost on a few shots like that this year, and I think today was our day.”
Worcester had been trading baskets with Cushing for the entire second half even though they were down by 12 in the first half. Despite missing their two main big men, 6-foot-9 Matt Cimino and 6-foot-8 Andrew Scocca, the Hilltoppers clawed back.
Rene Castro did a bulk of the scoring for Worcester. Castro finished with 31 points, including 14-of-23 from the field, and added five rebounds. Five of Castro's field goals turned into three-point plays, all of which he converted.
“Since my shot was not really falling and I had a couple of missed lay-ups, I just decided at one point in the first half to go stronger to the hole,” said Castro.
His teammates Ausar Madison and Tyreik McCauley also chipped in 10 points apiece.
Cushing's Andrew Chrabascz was unstoppable in the post to start the game, but had a hamstring cramp midway through the second half. The Portsmouth, R.I. native managed to tough it out and come back into the game but was not enough to push his team over the top. He helped push his team on an 8-2 run at the beginning of the game with his array of fundamental post moves, and finished with 25 points.
Worcester’s 11-4 run to start the second half ultimately shifted the momentum in their favor, and helped them get the win.
“Cushing Academy is a tremendous basketball team,” said Sullivan. “I believe this win would help us in the New England rankings. We had ten games to go, and we had our backs against the wall. We needed to assert ourselves and we got this big win. This will help us with our confidence level knowing that we can compete and contend at the AA level but it’s far from over.
"We have to play New Hampton Friday, which bodes as a big threat. I really believe in these guys though because they do such a good job of preventing other teams from doing what they want to do.”
Pressing Issues: What truly changed for Worcester in the second half was the way it attacked the Cushing Academy guards on defense.
“We just tried to run a man-to-man, 94 feet from the basket press,” Sullivan said. “I’ve been saying all year long that I think we have the best backcourt in New England to bring defensive pressure. We don’t have a great shot-blocker and we don’t have much size. To be a good defensive team, we have to pressure the basketball and try to take teams out of what they are running.”
Madison was particularly impressive. Despite only standing at 5-foot-9, he held 6-foot-2 Cushing sophomore point guard Kaleb Joseph to eight points. The Worcester guards' defense successfully prevented the ball from getting in the hands of Cushing big men.
Coach Sullivan added, “I think that we had to concentrate at what we are really good at and that’s pressuring the basketball. We were able to do that a little bit in the first half but Rene, Olivier, and Ausar really needed to pressure the ball more so that they could not get the ball in to Andrew Chrabascz and Tyler McFarland. “
No Big Deal: While Paul-Betu may have been an unexpected star in the end, there was another Worcester Academy player who came out of nowhere to fill big shoes. That was the sophomore big man McCauley, who used his god-given athleticism to grab unlikely rebounds and score inside.
“We haven’t seen that yet, but that’s why I recruited him here from Worcester’s own Holy Name," Sullivan said. "He’s a tremendous student. He has stuck with it and has been buried on the bench but I kept telling him to stick with it.”
With Cimino and Scocca out, McCauley saw his opportunity and had ten points and six rebounds. Despite sitting on the bench most of the season, McCauley waited his turn and ended up stepping up at the right time against a time that is known to score most of its points inside.
Castro’s Streak Continues: Castro’s 31 points was not anything out of the norm for him. He has been on a tear lately and just continues to put up big numbers.
“I guess last game I had 29 points so the streak ended, but I’ve had 30 or more in the past six out of our seven games,” said Castro.
Regardless of whether it is a seven game streak or a six game streak, one thing is for sure: Castro is maturing as a player at Worcester. Coach Sullivan has helped him become more of a leader on the court and it has helped them win their last seven games.
“He’s getting more and more comfortable with his teammates. Coming in, he did not have a great understanding of how to be a scoring guard and to takeover games,” said Sullivan. “Obviously I did not want him to think he was the only guy out there but I needed to get him to assert himself a little more. I also told him that if he focused more on defensive pressure, he would get a lot of easy baskets simply off of steals.”