NEPSAC AA: Cushing 76, Kimball Union 68

BEVERLY, Mass. -- This time, there was no doubt.

After defeating the St. Andrew’s School on a last second buzzer beater by Jalen Adams to win the 2013 NEPSAC Class AA Championship, some were left wondering whether Cushing Academy was a legitimate champion.

The Penguins answered all those questions and doubts Sunday by defeating Kimball Union (N.H.), 76-68, to win back-to-back Class AA championships.

“When you win it on a buzzer beater, there’s always those questions about did you get lucky? Was it a fluke? Did you deserve to win?” said Cushing coach Barry Connors. “The guys in the locker room know of course we did. You come back and win it again, and it sort of validates the first one. It feels even better this time than last year.”

This game featured future college basketball stars on both teams.

Kimball Union’s Abdul-Malik Abu, the No. 32 senior prospect on the ESPN 100, is signed to play at North Carolina State next season. Oliver Tot (9 points, 12 rebounds) will take his talents to William and Mary next year.

Cushing Academy’s Kaleb Joseph, the No. 49 recruit on the ESPN 100, is going to Syracuse to play for coach Jim Boeheim. Jalen Adams, currently the No. 46 junior in the ESPN 60, holds scholarship offers from Division 1 schools such as UConn, Creighton, and Providence.

The Penguins were able to keep Abu in check for the first half, holding him to only four points. In the second half, he was more assertive on the low block. He used his positioning and his muscular frame to out jump the Cushing bigs for rebounds and second-chance points. The senior finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds.

KUA went on a 9-2 run in the last two minutes of the first half to make the score 37-36. In what became a theme of the game, Cushing’s Connor Gilmore (12 points, 5 rebounds) hit a three before the buzzer.

Gilmore was also charged with defending Abu in the low block for most of the game. The senior held his own for most of the game, but when you are playing against a player like Abu that likes to draw contact, the fouls are bound to pile up. That was the case Sunday as he fouled out of the game with 7:51 remaining.

“He and Aaron Todd (2 points, 4 rebounds) did a tremendous job on the block fighting with Abu,” said Connors. “He’s averaging about 14 points a game for us over the course of the season, but the last 8 games he’s averaging 17 and 10 and he’s been hitting big shots for us.”

Cushing came out with a 12-5 run to open the second half and Kimball was playing catchup from that point on. The closest it cut the deficit to was 63-59 with 4:40 remaining.

A minute later, Abu fouled Adams (16 points, 7 rebounds) as he was going to the basket and was Kimball’s 10th team foul. For the rest of the game, he and Joseph (22 points, 6 rebounds) were at the free throw line extending the team’s lead. The two guards scored their way to a second league championship.

“I think this time around was better because this team got a feeling of what it was like to win,” said Joseph. “Me, Jalen, and Idris Taqqee knew what it was like to win a championship. We knew it wasn’t going to be that easy this year. We had more bumps in the road this year. We fought through it and that’s why it feels a lot better this time.”

Taqqee shines: Lost behind the statistics of future ACC players and future high-major commits was the play of Cushing’s Idris Taqqee. The St. Bonaventure commit dominated the first half of the game, scoring 16 of his 20 points in the opening frame while the defense was focused on stopping Joseph and Adams. He was hitting shots from all over the floor, including two from behind the three-point arc.

In the second half, his production quieted down while Adams and Joseph had the ball in their hands more as the game wound down.

“Idris is the consummate glue guy,” said Connors. “But how many glue guys are 6-foot-5 athletic studs? You see he’s starting to stretch it out a little bit. He’s knocking down three’s and handling the ball a little more. He’s the heart and soul and he sets the tone.”

Midway through the first half, he had 14 of Cushing’s 23 points. He also came down with five rebounds in the game, showing he’s not just a scorer.

“He has a will to win, he’s willing to do a lot of the things no one else is willing to do,” said Joseph. “He’s down there fighting with Malik Abu on the block and then he comes out on the perimeter and can hit jump shots. He’s really versatile. He’s kind of our unsung hero.”