WORCESTER, Mass. -- Brighton coach Hugh Coleman may have never heard of Mahar Regional before today, but it did not take long to learn the Senators' name on Saturday.
After rolling out to an early fifteen point lead, Mahar weathered a wave of Bengals comeback attempts on way to a 45-41 win the MIAA Division 2 state championship, in its first-ever state final appearance, at the DCU Center.
“We have not played a team as skilled or athletic as Brighton,” said Mahar coach Chad Softic. “We were not going to go beyond the three-point line (defensively). We came out sharp, and that allowed us later in the game to withstand a couple runs from them.”
Only trailing twice in the game, the Senators (22-3) pulled ahead for good in the third off a pair of sidelines treys by seniors Phil DiPhillipo and Darwin Duncan to go up 33-30 with 1:53 left.
The Bengals (21-4) had six opportunities to tie the game in the final 40 seconds, but were unable to hit the equalizer. Sandwiched by a pair of missed 3-pointers, junior Prince Unaegbu threw up the Bengals' closest effort down 43-40 with a falling back lob that rolled in-and-out in at 20 seconds.
After trading a point off free-throws, junior Theo Oribhabor (12 points) set up a final fade-away behind the arc, but the leading Bengals' scorer was blocked by senior Phil DiPhillipo.
“We were going to make (Malik) James show us he could shoot,” said Softic. “If they were going to beat us they were going to have to knock down some shots to beat us.”
Mahar was lead with strong guard play from its senior, including 16 points from leading scorer Jesse LaCroix and 12 from DiPhillipo. The senior guards helped the Senators open strong with runs of eight and nine, respectively, during the first quarter.
DiPhillipo stole the rock in the lane and rushed it to the opposite boards to open the scoring for the Western Mass champs. A few minutes later LaCroix stepped around a screen for an open jumper and a 8-2 lead at 2:30 in the first.
Straddling the initial break with a nine point streak, LaCroix lobbed a rebound across the court for two then forced a three-point play under the basket for a 17-3 spread at 6:50.
“They were quick so they had quick hands and feet,” said LaCroix. “It was definitely different going in, but I just tried to use the same moves and check the ball better.”
After tallying five straight from freshman Keyon Jones to end the half, Brighton outscored Mahar 15 to 4 to open the third. Speeding up the tempo entering the half, teammates junior Daivon Edwards and Oribhabor hit a pair of fade-aways for three at 5:30.
The Bengals grabbed their first lead in twenty minutes with a 29-27 spin around ace from junior Dwayne Harper at 3:40 in the third.
“We were talking about dropping so we would not just give up layups,” said Coleman. “(We needed) more ball pressure to create turnovers. We got rolling, but they made some big shots.”
Softic, who is in his fifth year at the helm of Mahar, is the first coach to drive the Senators past the regional semifinals in school history.