NORTHBOROUGH, Mass. -– The sixth-ranked Wachusett Mountaineers have prided themselves on defense all year long. Friday night’s showdown on the road against Algonquin was no different—in the battle of Mid-Wach A’s two unbeaten squads.
Algonquin (9-1) came into the night riding on the shoulders of stellar sophomore forward AJ Brodeur, who is averaging 17 points per game. Wachusett (11-0) managed to hold him to just six points, knocking off Algonquin 58-49.
Brodeur saw very little action in the first half, he was called for two fouls in the first minute and a half of the contest, and he spent the rest of the first half on the bench.
Wachusett senior Alex Cooper took full advantage, going 5 for 6 from the floor in the first half, while also pulling down seven rebounds. The Mountaineers trailed the entirety of that time, not gaining a lead until they scored a basket in the closing seconds of the second quarter to take a 27-26 first half lead.
In reverse, Brodeur only saw the bench for a few moments of the second half, but was unable to get much going offensively – every time he touched the ball, Wachusett’s defense collapsed on him. The Mountaineers’ standout group defensive effort continued, senior Jesse Maresca hit two dagger jumpers in the final two minutes of the game, and Wachusett escaped the upset-minded T-Hawks.
Alex Cooper, in how own admission, had his worst game of the season on Tuesday against Fitchburg. Luckily for him, another Mountaineers senior, Zack Berman, scored 18 points to lead them to a win over the always-talented Red Raiders. After the game, Cooper made a vow to his coach.
“He didn’t play particularly well on Tuesday and he came up to me right after the game and said ‘you’re never going to see me play like that again,” Wachusett coach Tom Gibbons said.
“He looked me in the eye, and that’s the type of confidence, and self-confidence, but a belief in what we can do, a belief in what he can do, and he backed up those words tonight.”
Backed up those words he did, Cooper finished the game with 16 points and 13 rebounds. He was nearly as efficient as can be for the Mountaineers, only missing one shot from the field. Coming in, he was well aware of Brodeur’s talent, but looked forward to playing against him.
“I knew that playing solid defense on [Brodeur] especially was going to make or break the game," he said. "It definitely would have been a different game I think if he had stayed in there[in the first half]. I tried to work as hard as I could to keep him off the glass and keep the ball away from him.”
The success of the sophomore Brodeur has been well-documented this year. At 6-foot-6 he can get up and down the floor, he is consistent shooting from mid-range, has great post footwork, a never-ending motor, and doesn’t shy away from bright lights.
Sound intimidating? Gibbons emphasized in practice the talent of Algonquin’s seniors and role players, that one player wouldn’t beat them.
“They’re a good team, but they’re not a one man team," Gibbon said. "A.J.’s a great player, but they’re not a one man team. They have a lot of good players…they’re really tough in the building.
"I thought Coop got some big rebounds, Maresca stepped up in the second half and played like a senior, and Zack [Berman] held us together. But [sophomore Justin Bowker] gave us eight rebounds off the bench. [Junior Brian Quinn] did a good job, so it was a real good team win.”
Mountainers 'Go 1-0': "Some teams take on the personality of their head coach -- this team takes on the personality of their senior leaders," Gibbons said of his senior leaders, in particular captains Cooper and Berman. "Poise, confidence, composed, unflappable, and that’s what we did, we weathered their run.”
He made it clear that this isn’t your run-of-the-mill top 10 team in the state, in fact, he shared that he and his team share a rather unique view on rankings.
“We don’t look at rankings at all, we just wanted to go 1-0 tonight," he siad, with an exhale of relief. "Mid-season, road game, in the Mid Wach A—it’s always tough. This is a good team we played...We survived the first half. I don’t think we played well…but we went 1-0 tonight.”
His team will have another tough test on Tuesday night, as they travel to Worcester to take on South—who behind senior guard Rod Milton, has become one of the toughest teams in Central Mass. The Colonels will certainly be hungry, as they lost tonight in a close game to archrival Doherty.
“I think the confidence is a big thing, again, and with confidence in each other , confidence in our defensive system—they’ve bought in to the system, and we don’t get too high or too low, that’s the other thing,” Gibbons said. “But South is going to be a real difficult game on the road too. So I’ll give them a day off tomorrow and then spend the next two days getting ready for [South].”
Momentum-building: Maresca was the game-high scorer with 17 points, and was constantly on the minds of Algonquin’s defenders. A hard-nosed 6-foot combo guard, his toughness spread much further beyond the three point line. He is one of the Mountaineers’ most reliable on-ball defenders and rebounders.
“It was unbelievable; he really got us to where we wanted to be in the second half," Cooper said. "He has ice in his veins. I can’t say enough about that kid, he really came up big for us tonight.”
Beating regular power St. John’s-Shrewsbury over Christmas break will still probably go down as Wachusett’s biggest win of the year to date. However, tonight’s road win will give the Mountaineers the momentum they need to continue to put up outstanding defensive numbers.
“We definitely pride ourselves on going away, bringing our defense, and not changing how we play, especially with the crowd here[at Algonquin],” the senior captain continued.
“I don’t think we’re going to face a more intense crowd and intense atmosphere, but South’s definitely going to bring it, that’s going be a tough game to prepare for.”