By John Orrell, Contributing Writer
Worcester – If the Marlborough High boys’ varsity basketball team advances to its second consecutive Division 2 state final days from now, it will be impossible to forget their Central Mass. Division semifinal “white-knuckle” affair with Medfield High at WPI’s Harrington Auditorium on March 6 that propelled them to their goal.
With a roster consisting of some players visibly weakened due to illness, the third-seed Panthers stepped up with an all-around impressive performance managing to eke out a 59-58 win over the second-seed Warriors. The victory sends the team (18-4) on to its second consecutive District championship when they take on top-seed Concord-Carlisle on Saturday, March 12 at 11AM at Fitchburg State University in what will be a re-match of last year’s contest won by Marlborough.
“They played well today,” said Marlborough head coach Bryan Riley. “We have a lot of guys fighting something but you have to tip your cap to Medfield. We were able to make a few stops at the end to get us a win and I’m proud of our guys. They’ve fought through a lot of adversity. We have some kids who were sick and didn’t look like themselves out there today but Joao stepped up and some other guys stepped up and it was great win for us.”
It was indeed senior guard Joao Mendes’s finest hour as his consistent scoring touch and timely moves propelled the Panthers on to the narrow victory. Mendes led all scorers with 25 points while teammate Chris Doherty followed with 11 points. Brian Short knocked home eight points while Owen Cappadona added seven.
The teams exchanged leads throughout and it wasn’t until the last seconds of play that the outcome was decided. Down 56-55 with just over a minute remaining, Short was sent to the stripe and converted two of three to put Marlborough back on top. But with Medfield momentum high after some clutch baskets of their own, Mendes made what was arguably the play of the night with a steal and layup that ran the lead to 59-56.
“They were setting a ball screen hand-off and I just jumped it, poked it and I just took the layup,” explained Mendes of the biggest play of his high school career. “I just kept thinking ‘don’t miss it, don’t miss’.”
Mendes did not miss but neither would the Warriors be beaten on that one play. Medfield leading scorer Evan Howels (16 points) hit for a basket with time winding down and then had the chance to win it at the buzzer, but his three-point attempt rimmed out to seal the win for Marlborough.
“In the last minute, we just keyed on our man-to-man defense and just stopping the ball,” said Cappadona of his team’s late-game strategy. “We just trust our defense in whatever happens at the end of the game. We always come out thinking we’re going to win and we have confidence in our defense. Whoever’s out there on the court, we feel they’ll give us a good chance to win it.”
Mendes’ earlier three-point conversion at the halftime buzzer was another momentum game-changer. From well beyond the arc, the poised Mendes lofted one last gasp shot that found the basket sending the team to the halftime break up, 28-25, while his team enveloped him on the way to the locker room.
“I was at half court and I saw the pass coming out to the wing and he overthrew it and I just jumped it and took one dribble and shot it,” Mendes said. “As soon as it went up I knew it was going in. It felt awesome.
“This (title game) is special, especially for me because I haven’t been a part of this but it’s special for everyone, the coaching staff, team, Marlborough and everyone.”
“This is actually the second district game Joao’s ever been in and for him to come out and step up and play like that you have to tip your cap to him,” acknowledged Riley. “He’s got a lot of guts, a lot of heart and it showed today. He not only led our team offensively but he was great defensively too.
“When we’re sharing the ball like that we have multiple options to go offensively. We’re tough to defend. We can’t take everything away. I thought Medfield played a great game. They’re gritty, they’re tough and very well-coached and it showed today. We just made a few more shots at the end and a few more stops and that was the difference in the game.”
“There are a bunch of us not feeling so great,” admitted Doherty, who was one of the under-the-weather Panthers. “But we came to play and got the job done. Now we have almost a week to get better and that’s good.”