BOSTON -- It almost slipped away from them.
With 42.7 seconds to go in its Division 1 South Tournament contest against Newton North, what was Brockton’s 15-point halftime lead was down to a meager two points.
Jamal Reuben drove the lane looking for an easy layup, but was called for a charge, putting the ball back in North’s hands. The sea of orange-clad Tiger fans erupted in approval as both teams headed to their respective benches during a timeout.
After two failed possessions where it could have tied the score, North fell to Brockton 49-44 to advance to Saturday’s Division 1 South Finals at this same venue, UMass-Boston's Clark Athletic Center.
Coming out of the timeout, there was a feeling of potential overtime in the air. After being down 29-14 at halftime, Newton North (19-4) had stormed back to cut the lead to two due to timely 3-point shooting and defensively solving Brockton’s big man Sayvonn Houston.
He had 15 points and 12 rebounds at halftime, most of which were put-backs and second-chance points he got while planted deep in the paint. He was limited to five points and eight rebounds in the second half due to double, and sometimes triple-teams when he was given the ball in the post.
“I was just trying to get position on everybody (in the first half) and work hard, rebound the ball, and when they fed me I just tried to score before the double-team came,” said the 6-foot-6 senior.
“They were all over me in the second half. They were triple-teaming me. I tried to get my team involved by getting the ball and kicking the ball back out to not try and force a shot, but just be there for the rebounds and to play defense.”
As North brought the ball over halfcourt, it was looking to get a clean look from the outside. It wanted to avoid going inside against Houston, as it had for most of the game, and risk getting its shot blocked.
Barry Santana (eight points, six rebounds) got a shot up, but it was off target and Houston pulled in one of his 20 rebounds. He was fouled by Luke Westman coming down with the ball, which put him at the free throw line because his team was in the bonus.
He made one of two, making the score 47-44 with 22 seconds left. Brockton (21-2) coach Bob Boen called a timeout to prepare his team for the ensuing North possession. If his team could hold on for a few more seconds, it would be one step closer to the ultimate goal of a state championship.
The North strategy was simple: get an open look at a three-pointer, since there was no guarantee it would get another possession if it went for a quick basket or couldn’t get a quality look at the basket.
For Brockton, it was a matter of figuring out who was going to take the shot. As the ball moved around the perimeter, North’s Michael Thorpe (nine points, six rebounds) looped around and caught a pass on the three-point line with a straight shot at the basket. As he spotted up to shoot, a Brockton defender leaped to block the shot, forcing Thorpe to move a step and a half to his left.
That gave Reuben enough time to try and make a play to disrupt the shot. He was able to get a hand on it, and Jaylen Blakely (seven points, three rebounds, three steals) was immediately fouled as he tried to take the ball back the other way.
He made both free throws, and now Brockton is on to the next one.
Sealing Sayvonn (sort of): North had absolutely no answer for Sayvonn Houston throughout the first half. He used every bit of his four-inch height advantage to control the boards and to out-muscle defenders down low. North’s inability to have an answer for him forced them to the outside for a majority of the first half. Combine that with their shots not finding the bottom of the net, and it went into the half with only 14 points.
In the second, the defense made a conscious effort to double and triple-team him every time he got the ball in the low block. He was forced to dish the ball away when he did get the ball. Also, in an effort to pull him away from the basket, Luke Westman and Santana, the two players Houston primarily guarded, set up on the perimeter. Because they both can shoot effectively from the outside, he had to follow them out. This left the immediate area around the basket open for baseline drives and backdoor cuts, which North used to help it get back in the game.
By the end of the game, Houston still made his mark with his 20 points and 20 rebounds.
“That was a very typical game for Sayvonn, that’s what he’s been doing all season,” said Boen. “Our gameplan was to go to him early. Often, we weren’t able to do that because Newton played defense on him. Luckily, he was able to collect those rebounds and put quite a few in. I don’t think he got a lot of them off our plays, I think most of those he got he collected and put in. That’s what he’s done all season.”
In good hands: Thorpe was the right person to take the last shot for Newton North. The senior is used to the pressure of the post-season, having been there last season when North made its run to the sectional finals. He had made three 3-pointers earlier in the game. However, Brockton was well aware of his credentials, and planned to defend him accordingly.
“We knew that they want the ball in his hands at the end of the game,” said Reuben. “We switched up our defense. Originally, Jaylen (Blakely) was playing him in the first half, then we switched to me on him and I gave him a lot of trouble. We knew he wanted to shoot.”
“I was expecting him to take the last shot,” said Houston. “We all know Thorpe’s their go-to guy. He’s a great player, so we all tried to collapse on him, double-team him, triple-team him, because they were setting screens for him a lot.”
With the way Brockton almost surrendered its lead late in the fourth quarter, it was difficult to figure out exactly what the catalyst was that allowed North to get back in the game. Even though its shots fell more that they did earlier in the game, it was not that simple a reason.
“I can’t really say what the difference was,” said Reuben. “We knew we had to keep up the intensity, and we knew that we just had to keep going and keep playing, but I guess they just made a couple of good baskets and we just had to stay focused. I think it was a focus thing, but we picked it up.”
Boen agreed that it was more mental than physical.
“Sometimes when you get ahead by 15 (like we did at halftime), you stop being aggressive on offense,” he said. “They stopped Sayvonn, which had been our go-to once we became unaggressive, and everyone else became a little unaggressive, and suddenly we’re not scoring that many points in the second half.”
“Once they got that surge, all the momentum was theirs. We made a couple of big plays, which gave us the ability to regroup a little. The defense made one or two stops in a row, which was big because we weren’t stopping them at all.”