By Dan Harrison
---- — BYFIELD — When Whittier’s Justin Reyes banked in a halfcourt shot to end the second quarter of last night’s North Division 3 semifinals, it cut the Danvers lead into single digits. The Wildcats gained some much needed momentum and as they headed to the locker room, the noise from the Whittier fan section was deafening.
Two-and-a-half minutes into the third quarter, those same fans were dead silent.
The Falcons opened the second half with Vinny Clifford, Nick McKenna and Nick Bates all hitting three-pointers to push the lead back into double-digits as Danvers advanced to the North final with the 69-51 win.
“It was definitely a big momentum (swing) for them, but we knew the game would be decided in those first four minutes (of the second half),” explained Danvers senior captain Eric Martin. “We started making shots and everything opened up. It just really went well for us in the second half.”
Danvers will play in the finals on Saturday at Tsongas Center in Lowell. The Falcons await the winner of tonight’s other North Division 3 semifinal between Wayland and North Reading.
Danvers opened the third quarter on a 18-5 run, pushing the lead to as many as 22 points. Against the Falcons, even a 10-point deficit seems insurmountable.
“We knew we played a pretty good (first) half. If we just came out and kept playing our game, we’d be all right come second half,” said senior captain Nick McKenna.
Clifford, who was shadowed for the entire first half, was particularly deadly from long range over the final two quarters. The sophomore scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half on a perfect 4-for-4 shooting from behind the arc.
“It carried over from the last game,” said senior captain Dan Connors, referring to the Falcons’ quarterfinal win where Clifford drained five three-pointers in span of just over two minutes. “He’s just playing really well right now, and it’s helped us. He’s just a smart basketball player knowing when to shoot and when to pass.”
Clifford got open in the second half because Whittier opted to come out in a zone defense to limit the penetration that McKenna and Martin were getting in the second half. The idea was to try and stop them from dumping the ball off to Nick Bates, who exploded for 16-first half points. But McKenna hit tough, off-balance jumpers all game and hurt the Wildcats by getting into the paint and raising up with confidence.
Wildcats head coach Tom Sipsey tried to counter with the zone, but in hindsight all it did was get Clifford going.
“We come out in the second half and try to make a couple minor adjustments — and that ends up not happening and it goes from a nine or 11-point game up to 20 almost immediately” said Sipsey, who explained why he opted to switch his defense.
“I wanted to do the zone because I thought they were getting to the middle of the floor; that causes us to help, (but) they dump to Bates and Connors. We thought the zone would clog up the middle a little. Obviously McKenna and Clifford shoot; the report was, do not let them shoot. We’re in the zone, they shoot and that’s an execution thing on our part.”
Danvers switched defenses constantly rotating between man, zone and a mix between the two. Whittier’s offense centered around two guys (Reyes and Ryan Grant) and while the duo accounted for all but nine of the Wildcats’ points, they turned the ball over time and again.
“We constantly changed up and we even changed how we defended the pick and rolls and the ball screens at times,” explained Danvers head coach John Walsh. “We were constantly sending people (to the ball) and rotating and still, Reyes had 24 and Grant had 18. We just knew if we could limit any other production it would help, and it did.”
The other big part of the defensive effort was the rebounding. Whittier wasn’t the biggest team Danvers faced this season, but the Wildcats are long and can jump through the roof. Connors and Bates took on the duties of boxing out Reyes and, with the exception of a few extended possessions, kept the Wildcats from grabbing offensive rebounds.
“That kid Reyes jumps really well, so we had to make sure to put a body on him,” noted Connors. “Whoever boxed him out between me and Bates, the other would go for the ball.”
And if it wasn’t Bates or Connors it was Martin, who only scored five points but had an outstanding all-around game. He may not have produced in the box score like his counterpart, Grant, but he didn’t turn the ball over much and consistently found open shooters. He also rebounded, hit the floor for loose balls and frustrated Grant, who had 18 points but only made five field goals.