BEVERLY, Mass. -– Even when the shots aren’t falling for Stevie Collins, his confidence never falters and his swagger goes untouched.
“Like Kobe,” he said with a smirk, referencing his favorite NBA star. “Keep shooting, keep shooting,”
‘Keep shooting’ enabled Collins to punch his team’s ticket to the Division 1 North final against Central Catholic. Thanks to 34 points on 14-for-15 shooting from the charity stripe from the sophomore guard, Lynn English (18-5) knocked off Everett (15-8) 94-87 in a fast-paced offensive game.
Everett guard Tyree Gregory dominated the first half, scoring 15 points over the first two quarters and giving the Tide a strong presence off the dribble. However, Gregory mustered just two points after halftime.
The two teams were knotted at 45 at halftime, and then started the game of runs. English had a 9-0 run over the course of the first two minutes of the third quarter, and after a timeout, Everett matched with a run of their own—going on a 10-0 run, keyed by junior guard Timmance McKinney (17 points) to take a 55-54 lead.
Then Collins caught fire. The sophomore knocked down two straight three pointers in the third quarter, and finished an acrobatic layup to beat the third quarter buzzer, giving his team a 67-61 lead going into the fourth quarter.
Bulldogs’ senior forward Ben Bowden (13 points), who is committed to Vanderbilt to play baseball, stepped up and took a little pressure off of Collins in the beginning of the fourth quarter -- he scored seven straight points to start off the period to give English a commanding 74-63 lead with five minutes to go.
“Ben Bowden, who I tease about being a great baseball player and maybe not being a fantastic basketball player, was outstanding," Lynn English head coach Mike Carr said. "He had a spurt there where he scored for us and did things that maybe he hasn’t been able to do consistently all year--but in the big game, he stepped up.”
Moments later, Collins canned his fourth 3-pointer of the night, and with the 14-point lead, the Bulldogs had all but sealed the victory.
But Everett wouldn’t go down without a fight.
“We got [the lead] to fourteen midway through the fourth and my kids were starting to get comfortable there. As a coach, you never get comfortable until that final horn goes,” Carr said.
Thanks to a quick 9-0 run following Collins’ fourth trey, Everett built momentum, forced Collins and Erick Rosario (17 points) into several turnovers down the stretch via their full-court press, and were able to chip away at English’s lead thanks to some late-game heroics from sophomore Gary Clark (20 points, 7 rebounds). Bulldogs glue-guy Danny Lukanda (8 points, 14 rebounds) and Rosario both fouled out of the game with just under two minutes to go, forcing Carr to put in 6-foot-6 sophomore Johnny Hilaire.
A long-armed, physically-gifted forward, Hilaire went 3-for-4 from the free throw line in the final minute of the game, and also helped seal off the paint with a big block that helped English hold a 90-87 lead.
“We had a little left in the tank at the end we made a nice comeback, got it down to two points, got the ball, and the kid made a great block,” Everett coach John DiBiaso said. “I told my kids in there, ‘It showed a lot of guts, that kid coming off the bench hitting free throws’.”
Carr added: “With the foul trouble, I put him in at the end thinking he would give us some rebounding, and maybe a defensive presence. Thankfully, he stepped up and hit some big foul shots.”
Outrunning the Crimson Tide: Carr and Collins both attributed the Bulldogs’ impressive late-season run to their brutal in-season conditioning. Even despite carrying the majority of the offensive load for most of the game, Collins and Rosario never showed to tire even in the slightest late in the second half, when they were able to build a lead that Everett wasn’t quite able to come back from.
“It’s huge. Running the stairs for 15 minutes after practice: we’re exhausted—coach tells us ‘fight through it’. If we don’t, he adds time. So we just gotta’ get through it,” Collins said.
Added Carr: “We are what we are, we’re team that’s built on our guards, we’re built on our press. If a team that’s similar to us takes us down to the wire, then so be it...we’re not tired, and I certainly feel that they (Everett) maybe were. “
Lynn English has played its best basketball over the last month, and though Carr and his staff had limited expectations for how far his young team could come, he also exuded a confidence in his gameplan and the ability of his players to execute said plan.
“No one wants to run with us —- this was the first team all season who did. For the most part I thought we did a pretty good job of handling it,” Carr said.
Missed opportunities: Everett had several opportunities to chip away at the lead earlier in the fourth quarter, but was unable to convert on several easy lay-ups inside. The Tide also shot 21-for-32 from the line -— not a bad number, but one that DiBiaso used as an example of opportunities that Everett had to regain the lead—something they were unable to do after they held the mentioned 55-54 lead early in the third quarter.
“We didn’t make our layups and we didn’t make our free throws -— enough of them," DiBiaso said. "They’re a tough team, we battled, we were always coming from behind.
“We dug a whole too many times; you can’t come from behind that many times. We got it down to 89-87 and we had the ball, that’s all we can ask for. But you’ve got to make your free throws in games like this; I don’t think we shot well from the line.”
Cinderella no longer: After beating Springfield Central and St. John’s Prep to win the IAABO 130 Classic by surprise, the verdict was no longer out on the young, but talented Bulldogs. They moved on to beat Somerville in the opening round of the Division 1 North tournament, crushed Haverhill in the quarterfinals, and following Tuesday night’s win over Everett, English will go into Saturday’s showdown with Central Catholic having not lost a game in nearly a month.
Collins said beating Central and Prep, who at the time were considered two of the top Division 1 teams in the state, gave them exactly the fuel they needed to make the unexpected burst.
“It gave us huge momentum, we felt like nobody could beat us after that. I still feel like nobody can beat us, I think we’re the number one team in the state.”
Gameplanning and conditioning can only go so far, and Carr said his team’s chemistry is perhaps the biggest reason why they have been able to make a run all the way to the D1 North finals.
“We never thought 'This group, this year'," Carr said. "We thought, 'Maybe next year', but we just gelled at the right time. That’s the whole thing."
But his star sophomore, killer instinct and all, refused to admit the same.
“I expected it,” the always-confident Collins said, straight-faced. “I think nobody could beat us and I still feel like nobody can beat us. We practice hard, the only way we lose is if we beat ourselves.”