MARSHFIELD, Mass. –- Elijah Rogers never lost his cool.
From the first steps onto the bus at Brookline High, where he napped on the ride down to Marshfield; to the first steps out of the basement-level locker room at Marshfield High, with Jay-Z and Chief Keef coming out of his headphones, telling his teammates tonight’s Division 1 South quarterfinal “Won’t be our last go-around”.
From the moment he was introduced to the crowd during starting lineup announcements, raising his arms emphatically to his student section; to his final walk off the court, given a standing ovation from the fans, the game well in hand.
In Thursday night’s surprise blowout of New Bedford, the 6-foot junior dominated the game without scoring, racking up just 10 points. Tonight he got untracked in a different manner, leading the way with 21 points and five rebounds as Brookline won over a hostile Rams crowd, leading by as much as 27 en route to a 63-46 victory.
But not once over these last two weeks –- going back to Feb. 18’s win over Catholic Memorial, when he racked up 18 points -– has the lead guard ever looked out of control.
So what’s gotten into him?
“I don’t know, man, I’m just hungry,” he said. “I’ve never been here [in the postseason] before, so this is something you’ve got to chase...I just come in here every day with a mindset [that] you’ve got to take what you can get and just win, man. There’s no guarantees. It’s one and done.”
Of course, it’s never as simple as just one player wanting it more. Just as he did Thursday, Rogers dictated tempo from start to finish, knowing when to hold and when to attack, and at times inspiring glowing narrative with his flair for the dramatic.
For starters, there was the fall-away buzzer-beater to end the first quarter, heaving a rainbow from NBA range as he fell backward onto the floor for a 12-7 lead.
The second quarter was where he put the game seemingly out of reach. He started things off with his second of four 3-pointers on the night, this one from the corner, then followed up with a windmill reverse layup through traffic for a 22-11 margin with 5:29 to go in the half.
Three minutes later, Rogers put the lead at 15 sparking two consecutive fast break baskets. On each one, he leaped high into the air, pivoted 180 degrees and glided up-court, first hitting Scott Cordner with a bounce pass deep to the blocks, then hitting Lake Berry (11 points) with an outlet pass for a 32-17 margin.
Up 38-20 at the half, Rogers put the game thoroughly in the Warriors’ hands with two show-stopping plays back to back. Gathering at the left wing in isolation, he drove to his left, took one dribble and dropped a euro-step, dragging his back foot as he floated the ball up high with his right, kissing the glass for a 48-22 lead. Coming back the other way, Rogers launched high into the air for an acrobatic block.
“Not a lot of guards get recruited for their rebounding, so I’ve got to show that I can rebound, because I’m a small guy,” said Rogers, who has light interest from a number of Division 1 programs, from Providence down to Central Connecticut State and the local Atlantic-10 and CAA schools in between. “I just always stay ball hungry. And then when I get the ball off the rebound, I don’t have to worry about the outlet because I already have it, and I got my guys running in transition and they trust me.”
This isn’t the first time Rogers has had tears like this -– early-season wins over Newton North and Needham come to mind -– but there’s a reason the Warriors entered the playoffs 12-8, with a No. 12 seeding. Inconsistency has plagued the Warriors for most of their 2012-13 campaign.
First-year Brookline coach Luke Day chalked it up to maturation.
“Kids develop at their own pace, they grow up, and I think he’s getting more comfortable with me, and what I want to do,” Day said. “He and I have clicked pretty good since the beginning. We haven’t always agreed, we’ve butted heads at times, but it’s always been respectful.
“I’m probably understanding how to use him better, and he’s understanding more of what I want him to do. The whole team is growing up, and you can see it right before your eyes.”
Seal and deliver: This much is for certain -- the Warriors are a much better defensive team than they were two months ago.
Brookline owned the glass tonight, unofficially holding a 44-18 margin in rebounds -- including 12 from 6-foot-6 junior Obi Obiora. Between Obiora, 6-foot-7 sophomore Mark Gasperini, 6-foot-3 junior wing Anthony Jennings and 6-foot-2 forwards Corner and Tyler Patterson, the Warriors hold a size advantage over most squads as well.
The key is putting it all together. The Warriors did a terrific job sealing around the basket, not getting caught out of position underneath, and demonstrating patience with pump-fakes and up-and-under's.
“We are clearly the team defensively that I thought we were going to be early on,” Day said. “We are really hard to play in the half-court right now, and that’s because they’ve learned some of the X’s and O’s things that I wanted them to learn about positioning, and they’re just putting the effort in on the ball.
“I mean tonight, we talk a lot about help side, but we didn’t need it tonight because we did such a good job on the ball tonight. You look at our defensive statistics in the last three games against three pretty good teams…And we’re not pressing, not gimmicking anybody, we’re just guarding people. It’s pretty good.”
Special season, special bond: Brookline moves on to Tuesday's Division 1 South semifinal at UMass-Boston's Clark Athletic Center, against Mansfield, seeded No. 1 in the South and ranked No. 1 in ESPNBoston.com's statewide poll since the beginning of February.
The last time Brookline made it this deep into the tournament was 2004, when Charlotte Bobcats forward Jeff Adrien was a senior. That 2004 team went on to the Division 1 state final, losing to Springfield Commerce 53-51 in a thriller, and concluded the most dominant three-year stretch in program history. From the 2001-02 to 2003-04 seasons, Brookline went 64-9, with two state final appearances, led by stars such as Adrien, Tim Jones, Justin Powell and Clayton Barlow-Wilcox.
Rogers knows all too well of the significance of that era. When he first moved into the area as a sixth-grader in 2006, he befriended Adrien -- then a sophomore at UConn -- during a pickup game at Boylston Park, a short distance from Brookline High. Rogers says he hasn't spoken to Adrien since last spring, when he made one of his annual appearances at the school to talk to students, but it's safe to say he idolizes the NBA veteran.
"He’s a good guy," Rogers said. "When I first moved here, I met him while he was at UConn. He taught me a lot, he told me about staying focused, and how it’s hard for a black kid to stay focused and take care what you’ve got to do, because it’s not easy for you. He’s a good role model that I look up to. I haven’t spoken to him in a while, but he’s one of my guys."
So what does it mean to be the first Brookline squad since the Adrien era to make it this far?
"It's real special, man. Real special," Rogers said. "[But] it's something that we can't stress over, we can't think too much about, we can't get caught up in the moment. We've got to be bigger than the moment, and just take it to the next game. We've got to get to that goal, try and win a state championship."