NEWTON, Mass. -- Midway through the third quarter of a one possession game, Catholic Memorial forward Brian Grant rose up to snare a defensive rebound.
Yet the ball was poked out of his hands by Newton North guard Jacob Ryals, ricocheted off several players, and rolled towards midcourt. Without hesitation, two players from each team dove headlong into the fray to try and win a crucial possession for their team before the officials blew the play dead by signaling for a jump ball.
When it comes down to competition between the final eight Division 1 teams in the MIAA State Tournament, that kind of effort is a necessity.
Catholic Memorial (22-2) and Newton North (22-4) both gave everything they had in a thrilling D1 South Final at Newton South High. Like heavyweight boxers, each team withstood a flurry of runs before responding with their own counterpunch, but the Knights delivered the last haymaker to seal a 77-73 victory and advance to the EMass Final at TD Garden this Monday evening.
The Tigers built an early lead on the strength of Ethan Wright’s 17 first-quarter points. They held the top-seeded Knights at arms length throughout the next two frames, but one could sense that the trademark Catholic Memorial storm was coming.
Sure enough, the Knights went on an 11-1 run early in the fourth quarter to build a 69-59 lead. The Tigers would respond with an 9-0 run of their own to make it a 70-68 game, but Catholic Memorial head coach Denis Tobin was able to calm his troops during a timeout.
Ryals to Wright and North down 70-68 under 2 to play pic.twitter.com/G87NM8jPw2— Nate Weitzer (@nweitzer7) March 12, 2016
“We pointed to the scoreboard and said, ‘Hey guys we’re still ahead. [The Tigers] made a run but we’ve got the lead,’” Tobin said about that crucial huddle with under three minutes remaining. “I thought we were a little tentative and playing not to lose instead of playing to win. So I said that we had to play CM basketball, get the ball and run off any stops or rebounds. Luckily it worked.”
Like any great high school team, Catholic Memorial needed their senior leaders to step up, and they came through in spades.
First, Knights captain Matt Hanna (24 points) got to the line and knocked down two free throws to make it 72-68 with 1:12 remaining. Then on the Tigers next possession, senior captain Steven Azums (13 points, 11 rebounds) took a charge right in the chest for a huge defensive stop.
Azums takes big charge for CM. They lead 72-68 1:10 to play pic.twitter.com/dKjfahdn5b— Nate Weitzer (@nweitzer7) March 12, 2016
With his team up 73-70 and 30 seconds left to play, Hanna caught the ball a couple steps to the left of the circle and provided the final nail in Newton North’s coffin when he drained a three-pointer to make it a six-point game.
Hanna with the dagger! CM up 76-70 16.8 secs remaining pic.twitter.com/P3udE6hx0p— Nate Weitzer (@nweitzer7) March 12, 2016
“Matt [Hanna] would not let us lose,” effused Tobin. “As Bill Rafferty would say that shot took onions, and it was the backbreaker.”
For Hanna, hitting what turned out to be a game-sealing shot provided a huge sense of relief after the star guard struggled in relative terms early on.
He said, “I had a few turnovers in the first half, and the fans got in my head a little bit. You always have to feel as a shooter that the next one is going down. That was a big shot and I’m very happy it went in.”
Left it on the Floor: While the Tigers went home disappointed, neither team should hang their heads after this bout.
Most opponents would fold after turning it over consecutive times in the face of Catholic Memorial’s pressure, and watching as the Knights supporting section exploded in anticipation of a trademark run.
Yet even with one of their best players fouled out, Newton North rallied.
Wright finished through contact to make it 70-64, and just seconds later, Nate Hollenberg took the ball coast-to-coast for a finish through contact to make it 70-66.
Suddenly the Tigers fans were the ones making all the noise. It only became more tense for the Knights when Ryals found Wright for a lay-up to make it 70-68, but they were still able to remain calm and execute on the offensive end.
“[Newton North] didn’t want to lose as much as we didn’t want to lose,” said Knights captain Brandon Twitty. “That’s just the competitive nature of these teams. We credit their guys for giving everything they had, and it was just an exciting game to play in.”
Three-peat: Catholic Memorial has now earned three consecutive South Sectional Titles, so if the team acts like its been here before, it’s because they have.
Tobin exemplified the calm nature of an experienced Knights roster when he said, “We thought that we were probably going to fall behind early. We knew [Newton North] would come out fired up. They had their legs, and we just wanted to make it at a workable margin by halftime, because we know that the fourth quarter would be ours. We’re used to playing at this pace for 32 minutes and we were able to gut it out in this one.”
The coach went on to praise his players for the achievement of winning yet another sectional title when he added, “I’m thrilled, but it’s the players who won it. I’m just along for the ride.”
Indeed it was the players who won this game, as Hanna and Twitty bounced back from a slow start to score 11 straight points for the Knights and cut a double-digit Newton North lead to just two points (39-37) by halftime.
These two guards are best friends who have a wealth of experience playing with each other for Catholic Memorial and the AAU program Middlesex Magic, so their on court chemistry comes as no surprise.
“Matt Hanna is like a brother to me,” Twitty confirmed. “When I see him get it going I want to get it going too. We work hard to play in games like this. We love this type of atmosphere, and we feed off each other as well as the crowd in these games.”
Now the Knights will await the winner of Lowell (20-2) and Cambridge (21-1) in the Division 1 North Final, to be played this Saturday night at North Andover High.
The Division 1 EMass Final is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Monday evening at the TD Garden, which will serve as a familiar venue for Twitty, Hanna, and the other seniors on Catholic Memorial’s roster.
“We don’t take that for granted at all,” Twitty said about the achievement of three consecutive trips to the state semifinals. “The South Sectional was wide open this year with a lot of good teams. Mansfield gave us a good run, Braintree gave us a scare, and to win it three years in a row is huge. We’re definitely going to cherish this moment, and hopefully we’ve got two more wins in us.”
Catholic Memorial 77, Newton North 73
CM 14 23 21 19 --- 77
NN 23 16 17 17 --- 73
Catholic Memorial – Matt Hanna (24 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists)
Catholic Memorial – Brandon Twitty (25 points, 2 assists)
Catholic Memorial – Steven Azums (13 points, 11 rebounds, 2 blocks)
Newton North – Ethan Wright (30 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists)
Newton North – Nate Hollenberg (22 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists)