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D1 South: Catholic Memorial 92, Newton North 73

BRAINTREE, Mass. -- When you’re facing a team as talented as the Knights, the game can turn on you in a hurry.

Newton North (22-3) did everything right in the first quarter of a sectional semifinals matchup with Catholic Memorial (21-2) at Braintree High. The Tigers shot 4 for 4 from long range, held one of the most prolific offenses in the state just 11 points, and even expanded their lead to start the second quarter. But then the Knights came storming back.

Catholic Memorial forced seven turnovers, dodged a bullet when Sam Jefferson missed a point-blank layup, and cashed in on every mistake during an 18-2 blitz that gave them their first lead at 29-28. While that run didn’t decide the contest, it was clearly the game’s turning point, as the Knights would go gradually pull away to win 92-73, and advance to the MIAA Division 1 South sectional finals.

“I’ll admit, we were a little rattled at first,” said CM head coach Denis Tobin. “We were taking too many quick shots, and the defensive intensity wasn’t there. But then our pressure started turning them over a few times, and once we start turning the opposition over, [our players] are like sharks to a feeding frenzy. So to basically take their best shot and survive it going into halftime, we liked our chances.”

After the Knights caught up, these two heavyweights wrestled the lead away from each other six times over the final four minutes of the first half.

The second half started in similar fashion, with four more lead changes, but then CM senior captain Guilien Smith helped facilitate a 10-0 run to give his team some space midway through the third quarter, and the Knights never came to close to relinquishing the lead after that.

Smith carried the Knights early, as he scored 9 of their 11 first-quarter points, and grabbed 9 of their 11 rebounds through the game’s first 20 minutes. He finished the night with a game-high 33 points, punctuating his performance by finishing two highlight-reel dunks through contact.

“He does it all,” Tobin said about Smith. “He scores, rebounds, sets up his teammates, and takes charges. I can’t think of a more complete high school player.”

Feeding Frenzy: Turning the ball over against Catholic Memorial usually spells the end for teams. Newton North did a good job of breaking the Knights’ pressure in the first quarter, but committed nine turnovers in the second quarter, all of which were of the “live ball” variety.

That sparked the Knights offense by generating easy transition opportunities, and things seemed to snowball, as junior guard Brandon Twitty (17 points) stole consecutive inbounds passes to put an exclamation point on an 18-2 run.

“It was definitely a momentum shift,” Twitty said about that stretch. “I try to help my team any way I can, and the way I could do it tonight was by getting steals, and picking up the defensive intensity.”

Along with Twitty, junior Kellen Grady (20 points) did an excellent job containing Tigers superstar Tommy Mobley. They helped to hold the sharpshooter scoreless in the second half, and seemed content to allow swingman Napoleon Miller to rattle off eight straight points while Newton North tried to stay afloat in the third quarter.

Tobin said, “I thought [Twitty and Grady] did a great job on [Mobley]. A lot of time CM teams don’t credit for their defense, because we play so fast, but those two kids are terrific on-ball defenders.”

“He’s a great player, and we tried to play his right hand,” added Grady. “Once he goes left, he generally likes to spin back right, so I tried to cut him off, and think I did a pretty good job of containing him.”

Rising To The Challenge: For Smith, the opportunity to go head-to-head with another one of the best players in the state was an excellent challenge.

“That’s what we work so hard for, we want to play in games like this,” Smith said. When asked if there was a personal battle between him and Mobley at the beginning of the game, he replied, “I feel like there’s a personal battle with anyone that’s guarding me.”

These teams have a bit of history.

Newton North defeated CM in the Garden City championship in December of 2013, and outlasted the Knights 102-99 in a double-overtime thriller last December.

Twitty said, “We were very hungry,” to get another crack at the Tigers, “Especially because they beat us last year.”

For Tigers head coach Paul Connolly, it was disappointing that his players couldn’t follow the same blueprint they had used to beat an extremely talented CM team in years past.

“We had such a great start, and that was very important for us,” said Connolly. “We weren’t going to keep a lead in double-digits, but if we could have kept a little bit of a lead, we could have turned it into a possession game, which is how we were able to sustain our lead earlier this year.”

“So, credit to them,” he continued. “They went on their runs, and it’s going to take a really, really, good, athletic team, that can guard the three-point line, and handle their pressure, to beat them. There are teams out there that can, but they are very potent offensively at so many different positions.”

The End Of An Era: Early in the fourth quarter, Mobley picked up his fifth personal foul, and walked off to a rousing ovation from the Tigers faithful.

The senior-- who has spent nearly his entire life on Newton North’s sidelines in one capacity or another-- embraced his coach, as they both realized this would be the last time they shared the thrill of competition at the high school level.

“[Mobley]’s such a great kid,” praised Connolly. “As much as he’s known for his scoring, and all that, he’s as quality a kid as there is. He’s been with me for eight or nine years now, since he was a ball boy as a little kid. He’s worked so hard on his game, he’s a terrific student, and we’re going to miss him.”

Mobley is part of a trio of talented seniors that won over 80 games in their four years under Connolly’s tutelage. Brett Stanton and Sam Jefferson will also hang up the orange and black after illustrious careers, but should look back fondly on what they achieved at Newton North.

“It’s unbelievable,” Stanton said about his teams’ several runs to the sectional semifinals. “And not everyone gets to do this. I was talking to my friend Geoff Gray, who plays at Newton South, and he said to me, ‘you know, you guys have been outstanding every year.’ Other players work really hard, but they haven’t had the success that we have. There’s a whole slew of reasons why, but we’re just very fortunate that we could do it.”

Now wrapping up his 14th year as head coach, Connolly and his coaching staff have clearly been a huge part of the continued tradition of success at Newton North.

He recognized that losing three crucial starters will make things more difficult next season, but Connolly also said, “There are some kids on the team that have grown, and learned about the tradition here that will be passed on. We’ve got a freshman in there [Ethan Wright] that’s going to work his tail off, we’ve got talented juniors that are ready for a bigger role, and we’ll be OK next year.”

While the Tigers’ run is over, the Knights look forward to a meeting with top-seeded Mansfield in the D1 South Final on Friday night. After finally getting past a Newton North team that’s plagued them for years, the Knights will have their sights set on a trip to the state semifinals at the TD Garden.

Catholic Memorial 92, Newton North 73

CM 11 28 27 26 --- 92

NN 22 19 16 16 --- 73

Top Performers:

Catholic Memorial – Guilien Smith (33 points, 12 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals)

Catholic Memorial – Kellen Grady (20 points, 3 steals)

Catholic Memorial – Brandon Twitty (17 points, 4 steals, 2 blocks)

Newton North – Tommy Mobley (18 points, 2 assists)

Newton North – Napoleon Miller (14 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists)

Newton North – Nate Hollenberg (17 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals)