SPRINGFIELD, Mass. –- When Putnam junior Ty Nichols pulled up from well behind the arc with three seconds left, his coach had little doubt about the end result.
Nichols (10 points), one of five Beavers in double figures, got nothing but net on the three-pointer, forcing an overtime session where top-ranked Putnam (2-0) would earn a 68-62 win over Nazareth (N.Y.) at the Basketbull Hoops Festival.
This certainly wasn’t Nichols’ first go-around in big games, as referenced by Coach William Shepard after the game. Nichols’ status as a clutch performer was cemented back in March, when he hit two game-winning free throws in the final moments of the Division 1 state championship game against Mansfield.
“Oh, Ty’s hit some big shots for us since he’s arrived," Shepard said. "He’s not afraid to take that tough shot at the end, he’s proven that before in the state championship game last year. He’s definitely not afraid to take that tough shot."
Putnam, playing without senior captain David Murrell, were able to knock off a talented Nazareth squad thanks to a balanced scoring attack. Dizel Wright and star sophomore Tyonne Malone led the Beavers with 18 points each, getting plenty of help along the way from Jonathan Garcia (12 points, 10 rebounds), Ki-Shawn Monroe (10 points), and Nichols.
“David is 15 points and 12 rebounds a game," Shepard said. "When you take that away from any team that hurts, but we picked up each other with David down so we just need to pick each other up until David returns. Everybody was there for each other even though we made some silly mistakes, we kept playing."
Those silly mistakes were seen mostly in the first half, when Nazareth’s halfcourt trap gave Putnam’s guards a major fit. The Manhattan College-bound duo of Samson Usilo (23 points, 8 steals) and Samson Akilo had their way in the paint offensively in the first half. Usilo in particular, with a chiseled frame and gifted athleticism, got to the rim nearly at will early on, throwing down three awe-inspiring alley-oop dunks in the first half.
“I thought [Nazareth] did a good job in the halfcourt defensively when they had to go five-on-five, we were turning the ball over and giving them easy transition baskets,” Shepard said, “It was hurting us, I said ‘guys, limit the turnovers and make them face our defense and we’re gonna be in a good position.’ Still we had our turnovers, but we did a good job of limiting our turnovers at the end.”
Shepard further continued his praise of the tough-minded Nazareth squad: “They played tough, I take my hat off to them, they’re a good team, a very good team. It was a good challenge for us the second game of the season.”
Coming off a Division 1 state championship and returning some young players and new pieces, including the highly-touted Malone, Shepard saw it as integral to challenge his team with tough games early in the year.
“Everybody had to step up, and that’s what I told them at the end of the game: ‘you guys, the way you came together, it can’t be denied. Just keep going forward,” he said.
Struggling to stop Nazareth’s guards from penetrating and getting it to their big men, Shepard and his staff decided to go to a 3-2 zone in the second quarter, a move that paid dividends and enabled Malone to in turn score on the fast break off of some Nazareth turnovers. Still, there are plenty of adjustments still for the young team to make.
“Some of the things we do defensively, guys are still not quite they’re but they’re coming," Shepard said. "Especially with our help side [defense], a few guys were out of position, but that’ll come. It’s new to them right now, but it will come as long as we have the will prepare."
Malone thrived on the fast break, but in Putnam’s halfcourt offense he primarily spent his time lurking between the high post and the low block on ball reversals. Known more as a pure-scoring wing than a banger in the post, the transfer from Williston-Northampton was an integral piece of Putnam’s offense from the paint, drawing praise from his coach after the game.
“That’s the thing about Malone, he’s a versatile player. He can play on the top, on the bottom, and that’s one bright spot: he’s unselfish,” Shepard said. “Anything we ask him to do he’s gonna do it. He’s got to dig in a little more defensively, but offensively it’s just unbelievable. He can play just about anywhere on the floor on offense.”
The Beavers will now have a week off before their next game: a showdown with Cambridge Latin next Saturday at the BABC Holiday Classic. The very next day, the Beavers will take on seventh-ranked New Mission, one of the potential frontrunners in Division 2.
Shepard is well aware of the praise that his team has the potential to garner this season, but for now he’s trying to keep it as simple as possible and set attainable goals.
“I told these guys: ‘we took one step forward, now let’s take that step forward in practice and build on this win'," he said. "We’ll see, the season is far from over and there’s a long way to go, but this is a good step in the right direction.”