By Matt Jenkins
---- — BEVERLY — One door closes and another door opens.
Just a couple days after missing out on an opportunity to take control of its own fate, the Salem High boys basketball team had a chance to grab a share of the Northeastern Conference Large title last night. This time, the Witches had no intention of letting the league crown slip away.
Salem gradually built its lead in the first half and extended it in the second half to defeat Beverly, 76-54, at Henry Cabot Lodge Fieldhouse.
The victory gave Salem a piece of the title along with Lynn Classical and Lynn English. Each team finished the NEC portion of its schedule at 12-4.
The Witches could have taken control of the league chase on Tuesday, but lost to Classical. But the Rams then lost to Lynn English on Thursday night, re-opening the door for Salem.
“It was a huge game, for the conference, it’s Salem-Beverly, and also for tournament standing. There was a lot on the line and our guys really stepped up and played well. Everyone was into it,” Salem (14-5 overall, 12-4 NEC) coach Tommy Doyle said.
“It was a bounce-back game. We struggled against Classical a little bit at times. Tonight maybe we didn’t play a whole game, but we played a lot more of a game. Everyone played together and played hard.”
Salem had four players hit double figures, and the top seven players in its rotation each made major contributions. The Witches played a much more complete game than they did against the Rams earlier this week.
“I feel like we didn’t come to play against Classical, (but) we definitely came to play today. I definitely think it was a bounce-back game,” Salem senior guard Billy Muse said. “It’s an awesome feeling. As a senior, it’s always nice to come out as co-champs of the NEC.”
Muse and backcourt mate Marvin Baez played huge roles in softening the Beverly (13-6, 10-6) defense early. The Salem duo hit a combined four three-pointers in the first quarter and had 17 of the Witches’ first 19 points.
“That opens up everything else for us because it allows Christian Dunston to penetrate, and Jared (Louf-Woods) to get layups,” Doyle said. “David Kazadi came in and got a couple and-1’s, and Jamie (Dominguez) came off the bench to give us a spark. When things are clicking, it makes us a tougher team to defend.”
While Salem was spreading the wealth on offense, Beverly was having a hard time finding anyone other than Jon Berchoff who could put the ball in the hoop. Berchoff had 17 first-half points as only four Panthers produced points before halftime.
“We really struggled with our rhythm. We have to credit (Salem), I guess. Defensively they took us out of our game and we just didn’t play well at all, really on either end of the court,” Beverly coach Scott Lewis said.
“I thought they outplayed us in pretty much every aspect. They outrebounded us, shot better than we did, and defended better. It was disappointing, but they played like a team playing for a share of the title. They came in and earned it.”
It was still a manageable deficit for Beverly early in the third quarter, but Salem’s lead slowly began to expand. A Kazadi three-point play gave the Witches a 14-point lead (48-34) with 1:52 to go in the third.
Then, early in the fourth quarter, Dunston converted a conventional three-point play and Baez dropped a baseline runner to push the score to 57-40.
A major factor in Salem’s ability to pull away was the defensive effort. Berchoff was held to only four points in the second half and finished with a game-high 21.
“We adjusted at halftime,” Doyle said. “We talked about limiting (Berchoff’s) shots and touches. Jared Louf-Woods, (Berchoff) is a tough matchup for him and they exploited it a little bit in the first half. But in the second half he stepped up and played inspired, like it was his last conference game and like he was leaving everything on the floor. That’s why we pretty much left him (on Berchoff) the whole second half. He stepped up to the challenge.”
Dunston scored 11 of his team-high 15 points in the second half, Baez finished with 14 points, and Muse tallied 12. The Witches continued to get great production from bench players Dominguez and Kazadi. Dominguez scored 10 points while Kazadi had nine points and a really impressive blocked shot when he trailed a fast break and swatted a Nick Cross layup attempt off the backboard.
Cross had 15 points for Beverly and Jonangel Franco chipped in with eight.
“We’re a good team when we play well. The problem is we’re up and down,” Lewis said. “We lack that consistency sometimes. If we can find that consistency we could be a tough out in the (state) tournament, and if we don’t play well we could be out in the first round.”