By John Orrell, Contributing Writer
Marlborough – For a time in Marlborough High boys varsity basketball team’s Central Mass. Division 2 quarterfinal matchup versus number six-seed Groton-Dunstable on March 3, it appeared that the Midland B champion Panthers were on the precipice of an early off-season.
Absent due to illness was sophomore standout Chris Doherty, a staggering blow in its own right, but added to that was the visiting Crusaders 18-0 first-quarter run that put them up 18-8 and it was nearly time to sound the panic button.
But not so fast as head coach Bryan Riley and his team coalesced with a breath-catching timeout and things reversed themselves rapidly. The Panthers emerged from that short break with sirens blaring putting up big numbers with a 25-9 second quarter run that led to a 68-57 victory for the home team. Third-seed Marlborough (17-4) now moves on to semifinal play facing Medfield High at 1 p.m. at WPI on Sunday, March 6.
“In the beginning of the game they came out firing threes and hitting everything,” said junior guard Owen Cappadona. “But we just kept doing our thing which is man-to-man defense. We stuck to it and we know that at the end of the day, teams are going to get tired and their shots are going to be short so we just kept grinding them on defense and they couldn’t keep up with that.”
“We know them (Groton-Dunstable) so well because we play them twice a year and we know that every time the ball goes up against them it’s going to be a war and we have to come ready to play,” added Riley. “We didn’t do that tonight in the first quarter but we settled in and got comfortable in the second quarter. We were able to get back in it and take the lead into halftime.
“We hadn’t played in two and a half weeks. We had to shake the rust off and a lot of it was what they (Crusaders) were doing too. We had to adjust how they were playing us and get comfortable playing again. It took a quarter to do that which I thought it would.”
Joao Mendes’s dramatic three-point buzzer-beater, a fadeaway pull-up jumper, put the Panthers on top, 33-27, heading into the halftime break and seemed to ignite s spark for Marlborough. The team opened the third quarter with a 10-2 run that opened the gap to a 51-38 lead with the final eight minutes to come. The Crusaders managed to close the deficit to within five points in the fourth quarter, but an 11-1 run that featured five three-pointers by Marlborough late in the contest sealed this one for the Panthers.
“We don’t want to go home,” said senior guard Brian Short who put up 21 points in the game in offsetting Doherty’s absence. “We want to go as far as we can. That’s the ultimate goal to get back where we were last year (state championship berth) and take it. But we’re taking it one game at a time and doing whatever it takes to win.”
“We knew that Chris was sick today so we were just figuring out a way to get the ball in the hoop without our inside presence with Chris Doherty,” explained Cappadona of his team’s game strategy. “We just looked for our open shots and played our game and that’s how we play. When we play like that, not too many teams can hang with us.
“There’s nothing better than this. The atmosphere is crazy. All of the fans here supporting us. We just hope we can continue our run and keep the season going.”
Marlborough lost Doherty, arguably one of the state’s top players, for four games mid-season and so squaring off against opponents without him was nothing new to Riley. He needed others to step up and they did just that. Besides Short’s contribution, Cappadona hit for 13 points, Mendes and Harvard football-bound Liam Shanahan added ten each, while Kevin Short hit for seven and Joe Tirpak for six. Spreading he offense amongst several players was exactly what Riley had hoped would happen.
“The things that we value anyone can do on our team like defending and rebounding,” Riley said. “Whoever’s out there we expect them to do certain things. Whether it involves Chris or not, we still expect our players to do their job.
“These kids know what they have to do. We didn’t really change the way we play much. We defended, ran our sets in the half-court and we made shots and that was the difference.”