D2 North: North Andover 68, Wakefield 44

LAWRENCE, Mass. -– Not too long ago, Derek Collins couldn’t even touch his toes.

North Andover coach Mike McVeigh was impressed with Collins’ play last Sunday against Concord-Carlisle, so much so that the veteran coach went out of his way to compliment his senior guard before practice the next day.

“Man, you look stronger,” McVeigh said to Collins, hinting at how much he had improved since having back surgery last winter.

“Coach, I can touch my toes,” Collins happily announced.

On Wednesday night, he took another step in the right direction, tallying 26 points on seven three-pointers, but more importantly, leading the Scarlet Knights (19-4) to a 68-44 win over Wakefield (15-6) in the Division 2 North semifinals.

“That’s the old Derek Collins right there,” teammate Chris Bardwell (14 points, nine rebounds) exclaimed after the game, going back to Collins’ younger days, “That’s him in eighth grade. He came out to play, he was firing. It’s awesome when you have someone like that who can shoot that good; it just takes pressure off of our offense.”

North Andover jumped out to a quick lead in the first half, Collins and Isaiah Nelsen (20 points, eight rebounds) hit back-to-back threes in the opening minutes to build momentum that Wakefield was unable to match. However, behind some hot-shooting from Wakefield senior Kendall Hamilton (18 points), North Andover held just a 31-23 halftime lead.

That’s when Collins got hot.

During a critical point in the game, North Andover game out of the third quarter gates with a sprint, led by Collins, who banged in four three-pointers in that one quarter alone. Just like that, the Knights held a 54-30 lead going into the fourth quarter —- a deficit that Wakefield was unable to even come close at chipping away at.

Following the statement victory, McVeigh embraced his star senior and joked about the Mohawk-style haircut that several players on the team got done for the playoffs.

“You’re the best,” he said to Collins, “and we’ve got to keep that haircut going.”

Brown stays quiet: Wakefield’s sophomore power guard Bruce Brown has been the catalyst of the offense all year, but tonight, he managed just 10 points on 3-for-11 shooting from the field. That was all part of the plan, Bardwell said.

“That was our whole gameplan, was stopping him," he explained. "Pretty much our whole gameplan was playing the 1-2-2 and playing off him—letting him shoot. Every time he took it to the hole, we just jammed him. We did awesome on him.”

Bardwell couldn’t quite escape Brown’s athleticism altogether though. Late in the fourth quarter Brown went up for a high-rising dunk in transition. Bardwell, looking to go for a block or force Brown to adjust his gather, could only joke about what happened next.

“Oh, that was awesome,” Bardwell said with a laugh. “Getting dunked on. Yeah, that wasn’t good. But whatever, I forget about it.”

Bardwell and Nelsen were also able to contain Wakefield forward Mikol Blake-Green down on the post. Blake-Green, one of the most aggressive forwards and fiercest competitors around, has terrorized opposing teams on the offensive glass all year. Like Brown though, he was quiet against North Andover, mustering just eight points.

“We respect Wakefield an awful lot, there’s nobody on our team, including the coach, who thought that was going to be the final score,” McVeigh said. “[Brown] draws contact with the best of them, but we just tried to use that spacing theory, we space and jam. It was okay, coaches have to say what they want, but the kids have to do it--and the kids did it for 32 minutes.”

Bring on the Bengals: North Andover will move on to face Brighton in the Division 2 North championship on Saturday afternoon. Before the beginning of the regular season, the two faced off in a scrimmage where the Knights outplayed Brighton for nearly the two hours.

McVeigh, though, is cautiously optimistic.

“Who filmed the Brighton/Aorth Andover scrimmage?” he asked rhetorically to an ESPNBoston.com reporter, with a dash of sarcasm.

Bengals star point guard Malik James filmed the scrimmage, of course. Brighton coach Hugh Coleman was disciplining James for being late to a practice, and the returning All-State point guard did not play for the majority of the scrimmage. McVeigh knows they didn’t get Brighton’s best shot.

“Obviously [suspending James] worked pretty well if you see the way he’s playing,” he said.

Fresh off one of the best performances of his career, Collins addressed his performance, but also North Andover’s business-like approach going into Saturday.

“My teammates found me open [tonight]—they found me in good spots and I was able to knock down some shots. It was just my teammates getting me the ball, really," he said. “Coach has been scouting the whole season, we’ll have a good gameplan and we’ll be ready.”