Hoophall: Falzon leads No. 17 Newton North

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Inside the bowels of Blake Arena, Newton North coach Paul Connolly stood flanked by his most promising young player, joking how hard he can be on him.

There are times Connolly yells, there are times he stomps. He constantly demands more. Then he’ll yell and stomp again. Ruefully poking a rolled-up box score into Aaron Falzon’s stomach, Connolly smiled, recalling how he’s gotten under the freshman forward’s skin at times.

“And he just keeps working,” Connolly said. “He’s made me a better coach.”

No surprise, Falzon’s quickly making Newton North a better team.

His team on the verge of an upset at the Hoophall Classic, Falzon scored eight of his game-high 19 points in a span of 67 seconds in the fourth quarter Sunday, rallying Newton North past Springfield Central, 58-56, on the campus of Springfield College.

Luke Westman added 11 points for the Tigers (7-2), who played without their leading scorer, Mike Thorpe. The junior guard stayed home Sunday with flu-like symptoms, which left ball-handling duties against the pressing Golden Eagles to Westman, among others, and the scoring load on whoever wanted it.

Falzon filled the void. The freshman shot 8-of-12 from the field, grabbed five rebounds and when needed, muscled up inside, a major area of improvement for a 6-foot-8 player Connolly said “would love to just go out and shoot 3-pointers all day.”

He got the chance later Sunday in the Hoophall’s 3-point contest. Beforehand, he did his work inside, scooping in four lay-ups -- two on designed inbounds plays -- to turn a 50-46 deficit with 2:01 to play into a 54-50 lead Newton North rode to the win.

“Obviously it’s a big stage,” Falzon said. “I wanted to do well. [But] it just fell that way. My teammates found me on fast breaks, down low. It just came all together.”

So is Falzon’s game. Blessed with size but still building muscle, Falzon has floated in and out of the starting lineup as the Tigers have battled sickness and injury, most notably to Falzon’s brother, senior Tevin, who hasn’t played yet due to a wrist injury. He’s scheduled to return in early February, but in the meantime, Aaron has risen into a reliable player, averaging around eight points per game.

That was until Sunday, when he became the go-to option with the Golden Eagles buzzing around to the tune of 23 forced turnovers. Down by as many as 11 points in the third, Springfield Central turned up the pressure, gradually cutting into Newton North’s lead before exploding for 12 unanswered points bridging the third and fourth.

Now down, 44-39, midway through the final period, Newton North responded with its own 6-0 run before giving up four straight themselves. Falzon responded, taking a nice feed over the top from Korey Mui (10 points), banking in two inbounds passes and finishing a press-breaker with an easy lay-up with 54 seconds to play.

“He’s definitely exceeding at least my expectations,” Westman said of Falzon. “He stretches out the defense from other teams. He’s a big guy so we look for him inside, but he’s tough to guard from other teams. He can open up a lot for the other players.”

Springfield Central hit two late threes, but they were meaningless after Newton North iced the game at the line.

“He’s going to be a good one,” Springfield Central coach Mike Labrie said of Falzon. “I thought we did a good job on their perimeter game. In fact, they had no threes in the second half. However, they ended up beating us inside. … I think that killed us. The biggest factor was the size [difference], other than the foul discrepancies, 26-12.”

For Newton North -- ranked 17th in ESPN Boston’s MIAA poll -- the victory is a sign it’s turning the corner. Long accustomed to being a force in the Bay State Carey and a regional Massachusetts power, the Tigers returned just four players from last season and have spent the last two months trying to meld a young team together.

It seems to be working, thanks to the times they’ve survived adversity (like Sunday) -- and their own practices.

“These guys will tell you, I’m not easy to play for,” Connolly said. “When we get out of practice and we’re hanging out, I can be fun to be around. But for those two hours, I can be tough on them.”

As he said that, Falzon nodded with a smile.

“He asks a lot out of me,” he said. “I’ve played hard before but not like this. This is the hardest I’ve ever played.”