AMHERST, Mass. -– Question answered.
Putnam is now undisputedly the best team in Springfield, and Western Mass. The Beavers silenced doubters while capturing the program’s first-ever boys’ Division 1 Western Mass. championship with a dominating 61-45 win over the defending state champion, Springfield Central, Saturday night at Curry Hicks Cage in Amherst.
“I told the seniors leaving, you’re leaving a legacy behind you,” Putnam head coach William Shepard said. “It’s an expectation now. That’s what you’re leaving. "
Putnam cemented that statement in the closing second of the third quarter and into the fourth. With 3.5 seconds remaining in the third, David Murrell intercepted a pass and banked a 3-pointer from half court to give Putnam 41-33. Ironically, the pass came from Cody Williams, the quarterback from Central football.
“It happened to go in,” Murrell said.
Into the fourth, the Beavers rode that momentum and took down the Golden Eagles’ reign as state champs. Jonathan Garcia, who disrupted passing lanes all season, came away with steal, resulting in an and-1. The Beavers swarming defense and balanced scoring attack of Garcia, Murrell, Bynum and reserve guard Ty Nichols sparked a 14-6 to start the fourth quarter as they began to pull away.
“Fourth quarter, that’s our quarter,” Murrell said. “No matter what, you just can’t stop us.”
The 16-point title win didn’t start off well. Central jumped out to a 10-3 lead, before Chris Baldwin was saddled with his second foul. The Beavers jumped at the opportunity beginning the second quarter on a 9-0 run. The 6-foot-8 Baldwin went back into the lineup and held notch the game at 17.
However, Murrell, who had been quiet at that point (no points, no rebounds) grabbed his first board and scored his first bucket to lead Central to a 20-17 halftime lead. Putnam forced three consecutive turnovers to end the half.
“It’s a team defense,” Garcia said. “When someone gets beat we help. We stick together like a family."
Baldwin was a handful in the third quarter scoring six points to keep Central within reach. His last bucket cut the lead to five, 38-33. Central went for a last-second shot, when Murrell pulled off the biggest shot of the night.
Murrell ended with a game-high 18 points, scoring 16 of them in the second half. Garcia had 13 and Bynum added 10. Chris Baldwin scored 12 points and 10 rebounds. Kamari Robinson was held to 11 points in his final game at Central.
Putnam faces the winner of St. John’s Shrewsbury/Milford.
Defense and no depth made Putnam a champion: Putnam played eight guys on Saturday – one was a jayvee call up – which is unusual for the Beavers. Ty Nichols had eight points, as the sophomore guard continued to disrupt the Central defense, getting to the lane several times and finishing around the Golden Eagles’ heralded frontcourt.
“I knew I had to be a part of this game because some of our starters weren’t as healthy as people thought they were,” Nichols said.
Nichols was really the only bench player to see significant minutes. Travis Frazer played a few minutes while Eddie Maldonado hit a three in only his fourth game on varsity this season.
Nichols along with Garcia and Dizel Wright form a tough core of perimeter defenders. Putnam held Cornelius Tyson, Central’s clutch player from last year’s state final, to zero points. They also sparked the offense by forcing turnovers.
“I told the kids, ‘You know what we hang our hats on,’” Shepard said. “We started getting transition baskets and that came from our defense.”
Rivalry ends beyond the floor: Putnam has, for now, shifted the powers of Springfield city ball. Heading into the game there was a lot of hype due to the rivalry and closeness of the two schools, which are separated about a mile in Springfield.
“It feels great,” Bynum said. “They were talking a lot. Everyone was doubting us, but we knew what were capable of and the team we have.”
Although these two teams battled on the floor for 32 minutes, many are friends off the floor from their Springfield connection. Many have played with and against each over the years: living in the same neighborhoods, going to the same schools, sharing the same friends.
When the game ends, many are still friends and nowhere was that more clear than courtside. In the front row, Putnam alum Jordan Almore, who starred for the Beavers last year sat next to his best friend Lee Turner, a starting guard for Central’s state championship team. The two watched the game side-by-side with Almore getting the last laugh.
“When the game gets like this, we’re competitive,” Almore said. “But he’s my best friend.”