No. 7 A-B takes rubber match with No. 8 Westford

WESTFORD, Mass. -- The tempo exceeded full-throttle at times. Shot after shot found nylon, like heavyweights exchanging blows. One player scored his team’s first 14 points while another sank a three-point bucket to beat the halftime buzzer.

No one backed down. Just as one expected.

Friday night’s showdown between Dual County League title contenders Acton-Boxborough and Westford -- the teams’ third meeting of the season -- had almost everything. And similarly, the Colonials' diversified offensive attack proved to be the difference, as A-B silenced the raucous Grey Ghost gym en route to a 74-66 win. The victory puts A-B (15-2, 8-1) alone atop the Dual County League's Large division standings, a game ahead of the Grey Ghosts (14-2, 7-2).

Offensively, the Colonials’ distribution was textbook. Four players scored in double figures, led by versatile junior combo guard Joey Flannery, who posted a team-high 21 points to go along with five rebounds.

Facing everything from a conventional half-court man-to-man defense to a full-court zone trap, A-B received consistent production as well from senior guards Wes Schroll (18 points) and Sam Longwell (17 points), as well as junior center Kevin LaFrancis (12 points, seven rebounds), who proved instrumental in gobbling up rebounds on both the offense and defensive ends, as well as containing the Grey Ghosts' dribble penetration in and around the paint.

“I thought [LaFrancis] was terrific,” A-B head coach Rick Kilpatrick said. “I thought this was as well as he’s played all year.

“He just had a presence about him tonight, wherever he was. He was a big part of the win, there’s no doubt.”

From the opening tip, the exceedingly high levels of intensity shown by both squads were hard to ignore. The first quarter featured 15 combined field goals, with Westford’s overtly talented forward Mark Cornelius (28 points, six rebounds) taking center stage. The senior offensive wizard opened the game on a tear, taking and making his team’s first six shots, including two from beyond the arc.

“He can do so many things,” Kilpatrick said of the Grey Ghosts’ offensive catalyst. “We can put a big guy on him, and he goes and hits some threes in the first quarter. Then I put a guard on him, and he’s going inside and scoring. And he gets rebounds. And he’s so quick off the ground...He’s just a great player. He’s a matchup nightmare.”

As the first eight minutes came to completion, with A-B ahead, 21-16, all those in attendance gave a thunderous ovation for the offensive display.

The second quarter, however, proved far less explosive, with neither team establishing much rhythm.

Yet after a three-point attempt clanked off the back rim with about five seconds to go in the half, A-B’s Longwell gathered his own rebounds while almost simultaneous launching another shot from downtown, this time finding the twine as the buzzer sounded.

A-B ended the half on a 9-1 run, up 32-23 after the first 16 minutes.

The final two quarters were defined by two themes: Westford’s persistence and the Colonials resiliency. Despite never leading after losing the lead with 1:17 to go in the first quarter and trailing by double digits on five separate instances in the second half, the Grey Ghosts continued applying the pressure.

With less than six minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Westford narrowed the deficit to two points, still behind 55-53.

“I just feel that we’re so even as two teams,” Kilpatrick said, “and we know each other so well, that even when one team goes up … you kind of know the other team’s going to get back.”

However, after picking up his fourth foul on a charge call while elevating for a five-foot leaner, Cornelius subsequently fouled LaFrancis on the Colonials ensuing possession, exiting the contest with about five minutes to play.

Going 13-for-15 from the charity stripe in the closing period, A-B (24-for-28 from the foul line altogether) was able to hold off a couple late threats from the Ghosts, including its full-court trap defense and six fourth-quarter points from junior guard Ryan Jann (14 points).

Being able to continually fight off the Ghosts’ attacks showed something about the Colonial team, Longwell said.

“Before every game, we talk about trust,” he said. “And we come together and we pick each other up.

“We all go out there together. If we’re all out there as individuals, it’s really hard to stay calm. As a team, we do it together.”

And earning a victory against an opponent as familiar as Westford?

“It’s amazing how every single time we play them, it’s a one-point game,” reflected LaFrancis. “I’m so proud of our team for showing confidence today. I mean, they came back and we just closed it out.”