D3 North Boys: Danvers 53, Saugus 40

LOWELL, Mass. -- Danvers is headed to the TD Garden Monday night to face Wareham in the Division 3 semi-finals after it knocked off league foe Saugus 53-40 Saturday in the Division 3 North final at Tsongas Center.

After losing by at least 30 points twice this season, it was different Saturday for Saugus. It had a plan right from the start on how to deal with Danvers’ 6-foot-7 center George Merry.

Unfortunately, it was not always successful, as the senior went off for 21 points and 12 rebounds.

“Right from the start, when we walked in before the game, coach said, ‘I want you to play like an animal,’ and that’s what I tried to do,” he said. “I tried to be as good as I can, tried to get every rebound. I tried to get the ball and go up. I tried to change shots, without fouling of course, and just play my butt off trying to get every rebound I could, get every point I could.

“I was trying to help out the team as much as I could on defense. On offense, I just wanted to try and create shots for guys, help secure the ball and just get it to the guards.”

It played some form of a zone for a majority of the game, while mixing in the occasional man-to-man defense. He had seen most defenses before, and adjusted accordingly.

“They went man a couple times, and that just didn’t work,” he said. “The other times they played a 2-3, and whatever side I was on, the middle guy and the guy on that side collapsed on me down low and tried to prevent me from getting the ball.”

Saugus led 15-14 after the first quarter, due largely to its guards getting in the lane and hitting short-range jump shots and floaters over the long arms of Merry.

Curtis Casella (19 points, four rebounds) proved to be a difficult matchup for Danvers, who always seemed to find his way into the paint and score, even when spacing seemed limited.

“We had an entire gameplan to try and stop Curtis,” said Danvers coach John Walsh. “He’s one of the best players in our league, and he is still going to get his points. He’ll drive and dish, the kid is just a phenomenal player. We spent the last few days trying to devote all our defensive time to a kid like him, and he still gets his points. That’s the frustrating part, but it’s more just hats-off to him because he’s just so good. There’s really not much you can do about him.”

With the lead never getting above four points, Danvers’ Nick McKenna (10 points) hit a three-pointer in the second quarter to give his team the lead at 23-21. From there, Danvers never looked back.

Its lead only grew from there and by mid-afternoon, Danvers had punched its ticket to the TD Garden.

Defense Delivers: Danvers is moving one step closer to the TD Garden thanks in large part to its team defense. It held Saugus to only three points in the final quarter and scoreless over the final six minutes.

“Our team is all about defense,” said Danvers’ Nick Bates (nine points, 12 rebounds, two steals). “We knew we had to go out there and defense hard, and that’s what we did in the second half.”

It will have to continue that trend if it hopes to come out on top against a high-scoring team like Wareham on Monday.

“We tried to defend that well from the beginning,” said Walsh with a laugh. “Kids like Curtis (Casella) don’t make it easy. We just tried to defend and keep the ball away from some of their top scoring options. We did a better job on that in the fourth quarter to let them put only three points up.”

Merry Shines: Nine of Merry’s 21 points came from the free throw line. The big man showed a deft touch from the line after getting mauled underneath by the Saugas defense. It seemed like every time Merry got the ball in the low block, the defenders made it a point to hit his arms, whether it was to try and dislodge the ball or to intentionally send him to the line.

He made them pay by adding to his team’s point total and ultimately, allowing them to get one step closer to a state championship.

“Free throws are one of my strengths,” he said. “In the Wayland game (the tournament semifinals), I hit two big free throws at the end of the game to ice it. I just do free throws all day before practice, after practice, when we come out of the locker room at halftime. Before we go into the game, I’m always shooting free throws and always making sure I’m on point.”