By Dan Harrison
---- — WORCESTER — For a span of nearly seven minutes in the second quarter of Saturday’s Division 3 state final against Smith Academy, the Danvers High boys basketball team didn’t record a point.
Maybe a second-straight state crown wasn’t in the cards for the Falcons.
Or maybe they were saving their best offensive display for the fourth quarter.
Danvers hit the quarter-century mark in points over the final eight minutes to walk away from the DCU Center with a 66-50 win over Smith and the program’s second-straight state championship.
“I’m so proud of the kids. I can’t explain what I feel; they’re just such great kids who’ve done everything we’ve asked. They’re great competitors,” said Danvers (24-2) coach John Walsh. “It’s a bond they’ll have for the rest of their lives. I know they don’t know it now, but they’ll (always) be discussing this ... and not every team has that. That’s what makes it special.”
Smith (22-4) played a 2-3 zone in the second quarter, and Danvers couldn’t shoot the opposition out of it. When the Falcons tried to go inside to senior captain Danny Connors, Smith swarmed the big man and the Blue-and-White uncharacteristically turned the ball over again and again.
The fourth quarter was a completely different story, though, thanks to the sharpshooting of sophomore Vinny Clifford (11 points) and the outstanding free-throw shooting of senior captains Nick McKenna and Eric Martin. McKenna was 4-for-4 from the charity stripe in the final quarter, while Martin hit 6 of 8, including his final four freebies.
“We weren’t attacking the zone like we should have been; we were just passing the ball around the perimeter and replacing each other. We were never getting in there and opening things up,” Martin said. “(But) everyone just steps up when we need them to. No one gets rattled.
“We tell each other to sell out one more time. We had eight more minutes in our careers no matter what happened; we knew we had to step up, and all five of us made plays when needed to, and it came out in our favor.”
According to McKenna (a game-high 20 points), the Falcons went hard in practice the day before, and it paid off big time.
“We went as hard as we could because we knew it would come down to the fourth quarter and free throws,” McKenna said. “We sold out. We sold out for it.”
McKenna exploded with 10 points in the first quarter, which helped Danvers build a 17-6 first quarter lead it held throughout the contest.
“It felt like we were fighting from behind for the entire game, which we were,” Smith coach Matthew Zerneri said.
Danvers played a lot of man-to-man defense with McKenna shadowing Smith’s leading scorer, Matthew Sulda (11 points), a deadly outside shooter. McKenna really frustrated Sulda, kept a hand in his face at all times and held the senior guard to just one converted field goal from long range.
“I definitely wanted to slow that kid down as much as I could because he’s what makes them go,” McKenna said. “He hit 80 3-pointers this year, so I knew I had to crowd him. As much as he didn’t have the ball, they couldn’t score.”
Connors finished with 12 points and battled through what was an extremely physical game in the paint. In the fourth quarter, his grit would pay off when Smith’s leading scorer in the game, Seaver Rickert, fouled out because of Connors’ hard work underneath.
But it wasn’t Connors who did most of Danvers’ damage on the glass. That would be the squad’s fourth senior captain, forward Nick Bates. He had 10 rebounds in the first half and finished with 17 for the game, including four offensive boards. Bates also had 12 points, two big blocks and a handful of assists.
Bates was been an animal on the boards for the Falcons throughout the postseason, which he attributed to his (and his team’s) hunger for a second-straight Division 3 crown.
“It’s almost like a dynasty,” Bates said. “Danvers will remember this team forever. I will remember playing with this team forever.”