D1 Central: Milford 46, Wachusett 44

WORCESTER, Mass. -- Joe Atkinson greeted reporters with a look that was one part ecstatic, one part exhausted.

"I'm dead," the Milford senior laughed. "I hurt my ankle [in the third quarter], but I can't even feel it right now. All adrenaline."

When you're down 18 with the season on the line, before a sweeling crowd in a cauldron like the Harrington Auditorium on the campus of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, you tend to go beyond the threshold. Atkinson understood as much, and was just about drained as he went up to contest a three-point attempt by Wachusett's Zack Berman with 44 seconds to go.

Atkinson (11 points) got all ball, and then put in the breakaway layup, for a 45-41 lead. The Scarlet Hawks held on 46-44 to move on to next Sunday's Division 1 Central Final, against St. John's of Shrewsbury, but boy was the outcome hanging by a thread.

"I went crazy. I just knew they were going to shoot it because they had two big men out, so I just went for it," Atkinson said of the block. "After that block, I just got a rush. I felt amazing, it was awesome."

Said Milford head coach Steve Manguso, "Atkinson was unbelievable. That block he made on Berman, making steal after steal, it was an incredible performance."

Michael Tracy came up with a steal for the Hawks with 25 seconds to go, but the ball quickly went the other way after David Mercier (17 points) was called for an offensive foul. The Mountaineers took advantage, with a tip-in from senior forward Alex Cooper (16 points, 10 rebounds) with 12 seconds to go.

Wachusett immediately fouled on the ensuing inbound, putting Atkinson at the line for two. He made the front end, and after he mised the second Cooper smartly tossed the ball off a Milford player out of bounds.

From there, up 46-43, the Hawks decided to foul, putting Berman at the line with five seconds to go. He made the first, and intentionally missed the second, but an ensuing scrum let the ball drift into Milford's end as time expired.

"We had a feeling they were going to foul us up three," Wachusett coach Tom Gibbons said. "So we were hoping Berman could get it and shoot it, and they fouled us right away. Five seconds is a little too short on time in order to have him make the second, so we had him miss and we [hoped to] tip it out fora three actually. But we tipped it too hard -- it's a hard play, but that's what we were trying to do, tip it out and we've got two 3-point shooters right on the line."

Milford trailed by as much as 18 in the third quarter (34-16), and Wachusett's Jesse Maresca hit his stride early. The senior guard had more points in the first half (15) than the entire Milford team, which trailed 27-14 going into the break.

Some schematic adjustments at halftime gave the Hawks some breathing room to work with. A switch in their zone press helped, going from a 2-2-1 to a 2-1-2, matching up out of it and trapping along the sidelines.

The Hawks were also more efficient on the boards, getting great help-side rotation to seal underneath. The Hawks outrebounded the Mountaineers 13-8 in the second half, and held them to 35 percent from the field (7-for-20).

"It was a tale of two halves, I'm real proud of my kids that's for sure," Manguso said. "It was an unbelievable game."