SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

March 18, 2013

Matt Jenkins column: Clifford heats up at the right time for Danvers

Matt Jenkins
The Salem News

---- — WORCESTER — More than 10 quarters had passed since Vinny Clifford felt and looked comfortable shooting a basketball.

Typically a coldblooded 3-point sniper for the Danvers boys basketball team, Clifford’s smooth stroke had abandoned him in the Falcons’ North final win over Wayland and their state semifinal victory over Martha’s Vineyard at the TD Garden.

The Falcons were forced to grind out those wins, and it seemed like they were destined for another ugly slugfest with Smith Academy in Saturday afternoon’s Division 3 state final at the DCU Center.

Clifford was 0 for 6 — 0 for 3 on 3-pointers — through the first two quarters and seemingly losing confidence with each misfire.

Then late in the third quarter, Clifford hit one ... and, as he is prone to do, kept hitting them.

Clifford buried his final four shots — three triples and one long jumper — to guide Danvers to a 66-50 victory that made it two straight state titles for the Falcons.

“I had been shooting bad all game. It felt good to finally hit a shot,” Clifford said. “I haven’t been shooting the ball good the last few games, so I was just trying to focus on what I’ve been doing all year.”

The shooting slump was clearly weighing heavily on the sophomore before he broke the ice. He became hesitant to shoot, and his normally crisp passes started lacking zip. But as his confidence cooled, his coaches’ and teammates’ encouragement grew.

“We always tell him to shoot. No matter what, keep shooting through the bad streaks,” said teammate Nick Bates, who finished with 12 points and 17 rebounds. “Vinny came out in the second half, I took him aside myself and told him to keep shooting because they were going to fall and we needed him right now. Every time he hits a 3, it’s a big momentum swing.”

Smith Academy adjusted its defense to a triangle-and-two in the second half, chasing Nick McKenna and Bates all over the court while sitting in a three-man zone. When Danny Connors caught the ball in the post, the zone collapsed on him.

Danvers’ lead was only six points (38-32) when Clifford hit his first 3, but his Falcons’ teammates knew that could be enough to ignite their long-range specialist.

“If he takes his time and makes his first one, it’s a snowball effect; it just keeps rolling for him. He doesn’t miss once he gets going,” said McKenna, who led Danvers with 20 points.

“It’s pretty amazing to watch a kid who’s only a sophomore, so young. He still barely talks around us, and the kid’s hitting huge 3s in a state final. It was pretty cool to see.”

True to form, like a raw egg on a hot skillet, Clifford got warm quickly. Before Smith Academy had time to blink in the fourth quarter, Clifford had dropped two more 3s and another long jump shot off the dribble to push the lead to double digits.

The Falcons could taste the title repeat.

“We knew he was a shooter, we lost him and he made us pay a few times, which opened up the game,” Smith Academy coach Matthew Zerneri said. “We went to a triangle-and-two, and I thought that gave Danvers a lot of trouble. In the fourth quarter, he was able to come out and hit a couple shots, which knocked us back out of (the defense).

“Those shots were real big.”

Shut out through the first 21 minutes, Clifford finished with 11 points, joining the other four Danvers starters in double figures.

The Falcons’ players and coaches were rewarded for sticking with their sophomore shooter. They knew it for sure as they grabbed their second consecutive state title trophy on the DCU floor.

“You just gotta stay with him. He’s a shooter, he’s hit 70-something 3s,” Danvers coach John Walsh said.

“I talked to the Watertown coach (Steve Harrington) after the (state semifinal) game in the Garden and he said, ‘The only thing is, I don’t think you shot enough 3s.’ I thought about it, because I value his opinion so much, and he was right. We just had to keep having Vinny shoot 3s. He did, and he shot his way out of it.”

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Matt Jenkins is a staff writer at The Salem News. Contact him at mjenkins@salemnews.com or 978-338-2648, and follow him on Twitter @MattJenkins_SN.