The last win is always the toughest.
What started out as the ultimate dream for the Danvers High boys basketball team is now just one game away from being a reality as the Falcons stand just a win shy of the program's first state title. They can achieve that tomorrow afternoon at the DCU Center in Worcester when they meet St. Joseph's Central of Pittsfield for the Division 3 state title (12:30 p.m.)
According to Falcons head coach John Walsh, the Crusaders (20-5) aren't merely another hurdle for Danvers; they're as tough as any squad his team will have faced all season.
"We were there the other night (at Tuesday's Division 3 Central/West state semifinal at Mass Mutual Center) and we know how good they are and how big they are," said Walsh of St. Joseph's. "They're not huge, but have good size and are pretty athletic.
"It's going to be a tough one. They're very athletic and they have a great point guard."
Danvers is no stranger to facing big-time ball handlers in the tournament. Curtis Casella (Saugus), Jaleel Bell (Wayland), Corey McNamara (Pentucket) and most recently, Darien Fernandez (Wareham) have all fallen victim to the Falcons' backcourt defenders, Jon Amico and Eric Martin.
But Taverick "Tank" Roberson, a 5-9 junior for the Crusaders, should prove to be a handful for Amico and Martin. Roberson's also a main cog in St. Joe's full-court, man-to-man and diamond presses.
Not unlike Wareham, the Crusaders like to force turnovers in bunches, so as big as Amico and Martin will be defensively the duo will have to focus on protecting every single Danvers possession.
St. Joseph's forced 20 turnovers in their Division 3 West title game win over Lee, but also committed the same number of giveaways. Danvers handled Wareham's press throughout most of Monday's win vs. Wareham, but it was a different kind of pressure than that applied by St. Joe's.
"(Amico and Martin) have to really defend and really take care of the basketball. No turnovers," explained Walsh. "(St. Joe's) pressures you a lot, but it's a different pressure set (than Wareham). Wareham wants you to pass where St. Joe's wants to force you to dribble over halfcourt."
Junior forward Mike Carpenter struggled in Tuesday's state semifinal but provides the Crusaders with another viable scoring option. At 6-foot-1, Carpenter can slash from the wing and attack the rim or hoist a 3-pointer.
Like Danvers, though, St. Joseph's needs to feed the big guy in the middle. Senior Mike McMahon stands 6-5 and provides the inside presence for the Crusaders much the same way George Merry anchors the Falcons offensively.
Merry, who will have the height advantage Saturday, has been a real force in the middle defensively in the postseason, most recently showing his ability to alter shots against Wareham without picking up fouls. Matching up with Carpenter, Merry will need to remain on the court. "It will be a tough task for him," Walsh said of Merry.
Junior guard Joe Bianchi and junior forward Lavante Wiggins round out the St. Joe's starting five. But with Danvers' length the Crusaders could opt to plug in 6-2 senior Joe Wiggins, who was immense off the bench on Tuesday with 17 points and 12 rebounds.
Danvers' Dan Connors, who has emerged with his work on the offensive glass this postseason, could prove crucial if Merry attracts a double-team or if Connors is matched up with the undersized Carpenter.
The Falcons will need offense wherever they can get it, considering St. Joe's enters tomorrow's bout having one of the top defenses in the state and one that becomes especially stingy in the game's late stages. The Crusaders held Whitinsville Christian scoreless in the final three minutes of Tuesday's semifinal; the most points they've allowed this winter has been 61.
Nick Bates could be poised for another big offensive outburst after pouring in 17 points against Wareham, but he could prove to be most valuable on the glass. Bates rebounds above the rim on both ends of the court, and his length is invaluable for Danvers.
Nick McKenna has been hot off the bench for the Falcons; both he and Bates will need to be sharp on Saturday. McKenna used his mid-range game to go for 10 points in the third quarter of Monday's win and Walsh is hoping at some point Saturday both McKenna and Bates will step up offensively they way they have in the past.
"If they have similar games as (Monday), that would really do wonders for us," said Walsh. "(St. Joe's) defends so well and is so athletic that to get that same sort of out put would be huge."
George MerryCMike McMahon
Dan ConnorsPFMike Carpenter
Nick BatesG/FLavante Wiggins
Jon AmicoSGJoe Bianchi
Eric MartinPGTank Roberson
Nick McKenna6th manJoe Wiggins