MILTON, Mass. -- With the second half barely three minutes old Saturday, the St. Mark’s boys basketball team was once again finding itself. One of its best players was on the bench in foul trouble. The other was on the floor, but with more whistles against him than baskets.
“We were a little bit lost,” coach David Lubick said, “what to do offensively.”
Defense seemed to work just fine.
Essentially down their best offensive options, the Lions tightened up to hold Milton Academy to two field goals in the first eight minutes of the second half, providing more than enough time to pull away for a 68-58 victory.
Nik Stauskas finished with 18 points and six rebounds to carry the offense for stretches, and guard Kevin Zabo added 15 points. More importantly, St. Mark’s (8-0) flipped a switch defensively to limit the touches of Boston College-bound Dennis Clifford (eight points, seven rebounds) and leave Milton Academy (7-3) with few options inside the 3-point arc.
It turned a 3-point halftime deficit into a comfortable 10-point lead St. Mark’s held for the majority of the second frame.
“The first thing is just pressuring the ball,” said forward Alex Murphy. “At this level, if you pressure the ball, a lot of guys have trouble handling that. We just have guys who are willing to play defense, willing to play hard all the time.”
St. Mark’s is loaded with athleticism and size, best combined in the forms of 7-foot Kaleb Tarczewski and the 6-foot-8 Murphy. Tarczewski finished with 14 points and eight rebounds, but he sat for nearly a five-minute stretch in the second half. Murphy chipped in eight points, but two early offensive fouls had him scoreless by halftime and thereafter, his attention turned to guarding Clifford with Tarczewski out.
That left the offense largely in the hands of Stauskas, who was 6-for-6 from the free throw line and hit two 3-pointers. But it left the game leaning on the Lions’ defense.
“We’re still trying to find our way because we’re a young team,” Tarczewski said. “We haven’t played too much together. We have a lot to learn. We’re starting to figure out how to play offensively. Points really aren’t a problem for us. But we’re trying to play better on defense. I don’t know if you saw a few times, but the weak side help wasn’t there. We gotta be more aggressive sometimes.”
That wasn’t a problem Saturday. Milton hit two 3-pointers early in the second half, but managed little else after going basket for basket with St. Mark’s in the first. It cut the deficit to five with 5:44 to play, but Tarczewski answered with a lay-up and St. Mark’s scored eight of the game’s next 10 points.
“I think we became too satisfied with what happened in the first (half),” Clifford said. “I think we [ticked] them off enough for them to come back harder. We didn’t match that at the beginning of the second half.”
Clifford, however, did his part. Paired against Tarczewski in the game’s most interesting match-up, he consistently forced the 7-footer baseline and under the hoop for difficult shots. He also finished with four blocks, and has clearly become Milton’s emotional leader.
“I don’t think he was just holding his own,” Milton coach Lamar Reddicks said of Clifford. “It should be like that. I look at it as a battle of two good big guys. I don’t think either one got the better of the other. It was just a really good battle.”
ODDS AND ENDS
-- Like Clifford, Tarczewski and Murphy are Division-I bound, though their destinations haven’t been determined. Tarczewski remains the most raw, but has a enormous ceiling because of his fluidity for his size.
“He’s been focusing his intensity and realizing his greatest gift is his athleticism and ability to run down the floor,” Lubick said. “He really wasn’t a skilled player (before). He had trouble catching the ball and making moves last year. He can now catch the ball a little bit on the move.
“Most 7-foot kids, there’s some flaw there athletically. You can see it before they even start. But he’s got an incredible gift.”
Spending time this summer with former Celtics coach John Carroll has helped his offensive game immensely, Lubick said.
“It’s coming easier,” Tarczewski said. “It’s a day-to-day thing. I’ll take a step forward, then I’ll take a step back. I’m trying to improve my presence on the court. Today wasn’t an overly good game for me but everybody else stepped up.”
-- Lubick joked he wasn’t overly fond of Stauskas’ decision to drain a 3-pointer with the Lions up nine with under a minute to play. But he’s proven more than simply a complementary piece to his two star teammates.
“A nice release valve,” Lubick called him.