MassLive.com online sports producer Jay King and I break down each of the three MIAA boys basketball State Championships taking place Saturday at the DCU Center in Worcester. I'll be providing Eastern Mass. perspective, while Jay handles Western Mass.
DIVISION 2: BRIGHTON VS. SOUTH HADLEY
Boy, do the Bengals have a flair for the dramatic. In Tuesday night’s Eastern Mass. Final with Scituate, at TD Garden, Brighton trailed by 11 with four minutes to go, then took the lead with 1.8 seconds left after Malik James scooped up a Nate Hogan deflection and converted a three-point play. James’ fourth-quarter effort – 14 of his 21 points, all with four fouls – is something they’ll be talking about for years. And yet, it was just the latest episode of one of the most dramatic playoff runs in years, scoring last-second victories in wins over Burlington, Melrose and North Andover en route to that Scituate win.
The Bengals were a heavy favorite over Mahar in last year’s state final, but fell behind 17-3 in the first quarter before losing by four. Yet here they are again, supercharged behind James and getting added boost from wing Nick Simpson, who was ruled academically ineligible shortly before last year’s playoff run.
Should Brighton win on Saturday, the Bengals would be the first team from Boston Public Schools to win both a Boston City Championship and MIAA State Championship in the same season since 2003. That, of course, was one of Jack O’Brien’s five state title squads at Charlestown. The legendary O’Brien is a lifelong mentor to Brighton head coach Hugh Coleman, who was also an assistant on those nationally-ranked Townies squads.
-- Brendan Hall
Malik James, 6-2 Jr. G (21 points, eight assists) – When in his element, simply the best point guard in the MIAA. His 14-point fourth quarter with four fouls at the Garden, punctuated with his steal and game-winning layup, was something of beauty.
Nick Simpson, 6-4 Jr. G (16 points, seven rebounds) – Ruled ineligible shortly before the 2011-12 postseason, some wonder if he could have been the difference in the Mahar game last year.
Prince Unaegbu, 6-6 Jr. C (12 rebounds, seven blocks) – Also a menace as a two-way edge player in football, Unaegbu is the muscle down below. Also the cousin of future UMass defensive end Peter Ngobidi.
Daivon Edwards, 6-0 Sr. G (13 points) – One of the state’s best long-distance shooters, has hit 92 three-pointers so far this season. Give him an inch, it will feel like a mile.
Road through the playoffs
North First Round: beat Burlington, 62-60
North Quarterfinal: beat Salem, 82-61
North Semifinal: beat Melrose, 65-62
North Final: beat North Andover, 64-59
Eastern Mass. Final: beat Scituate, 55-52
School: South Hadley
When South Hadley dropped to 7-5 with a 26-point loss to Sabis at the Hoophall Classic in mid-January, coach Jeff Guiel kept the team in the locker room for about a half an hour. He told his players they needed to be mentally tougher. He implored them to use their assistant coaches, former South Hadley players, as examples. He didn’t really know what else to do. He felt his team could play much better, but he saw an underachieving bunch sitting in front of him.
South Hadley lost its next two games after that speech (maybe drawing similar ones), but hasn’t lost since. The Tigers won their last six regular season contests, captured a Western Mass. title with three more victories, and then beat St. Bernard’s by 15 points in the Division II state semifinals.
Underachieving no more. Not even close.
-- Jay King
Evan Marcus, 5-11 Sr. G (16 points) – Depending when you pay attention during a game, Marcus will either be: shooting a 3-pointer, posting up, doggedly chasing an opponent, quarterbacking the South Hadley offense or slashing to the paint for two. So yes, he provides quite a bit. And yes, at least during the latter stages of the Western Mass. tournament, South Hadley’s Mr. Everything wore his hair in a mullet.
T.J. Fitzell, 5-10 Jr. G (11.3 points) – Fitzell’s like that bad movie about an underground fight club starring Sean Faris –- he’ll Never Back Down. Capable of extended hot streaks, he hit five 3-pointers in the first quarter against St. Bernard’s and leads South Hadley with 46 triples on the season.
Avon White, 5-10 Jr. G (10.7 points) – South Hadley’s quickest player and best ball-handler, White is adept at breaking down defenses with the dribble.
Anthony Bullough, 6-2 Sr. F (8.2 points) – Though he scored 14 points in the Western Mass. final, Bullough isn’t one to post impressive numbers. What he does provide for South Hadley, though: toughness and a bit of length for a team mostly devoid of the latter.
Road through the playoffs
West Round 1: beat Belchertown, 73-51
West Semifinals: beat Sabis, 52-40
West Final: beat Greenfield, 55-49
State Semifinals: beat St. Bernard’s, 63-48