By Matt Jenkins
---- — HAMILTON — As if battling a strong, deep Pingree School basketball team in its home gym didn’t provide enough difficulty for Winchendon, the visitors also found themselves facing the ghost of Hebron Academy.
The host Highlanders played with a high level of urgency and an added sense of purpose in the first round of the NEPSAC Class C Tournament and rolled to a 75-49 win over Winchendon.
Pingree, the No. 3 seed, tasted an upset defeat a year ago thanks to Hebron, and the Highlanders had no intentions of revisiting that feeling.
“Last year was a shock to us. We were the No. 2 seed and thought it would be an easy win,” Pingree junior forward Connor Reardon said. “But it was more real for us this year and meant more because we lost last year.”
The Highlanders, who will move on to play The Wheeler School on the road tomorrow in the Class C semifinals, suffocated Winchendon with full-court defense and moved the ball freely on offense.
Four of Pingree’s five starters hit double figures, led by freshman Justin Assad’s game-high 26 points, including a pair of rim-rocking jams.
“I know when I was a freshman I didn’t have confidence to rise up on kids like that, taking the ball to the hoop and shooting the ball,” Reardon, a Salem resident, said. “For him to do that and have big games is only going to help us down the road.”
Junior forward Kyle Lentini added 17 points for the Highlanders (18-6), while Reardon and lightning-quick junior point guard Johnny Spears each had 12 points. Spears added 10 assists and Assad pulled down seven rebounds.
Pingree’s win was more about defense than point distribution, however.
Winchendon’s Malcolm Smith had nine points on his first four shots in less than two minutes as the visitors opened an early 9-6 lead. Pingree tightened the screws after that, embarking on an 11-0 run that gave it a lead it would never relinquish.
The Highlanders slowed Smith the rest of the way, thanks in large part to Assad. Smith finished with a team-high 22 points, but Assad and the Highlanders made him work much harder the rest of the way.
“We knew they were going to go on runs, and we had to stay positive,” Assad said. “Coach (Steve Gibbs) was telling me to not let him get the ball, so I made that my priority.”
Pingree’s priority now is simply to survive and advance, and the Highlanders are looking forward to getting another crack at Wheeler, a team that defeated them by four points a couple of weeks ago.
“We definitely want another shot,” Reardon said.
agateHed:Pingree 75, Winchendon 49
agate_lineQuarters:Winchendon@SportsLocalAgate:agate_lineQuarters:: McLaren 2-0-6, Ruffen 1-0-2, Smith 9-0-22, Bell 1-1-3, Uchenda 0-1-1, Ozgunus 4-0-10, Ullcer 2-0-5. @SportsLocalAgate:agate_lineQuarters:Totals@SportsLocalAgate:agate_lineQuarters: 19-2-49@SportsLocalAgate:agate_lineQuarters:.
agate_lineQuarters:Pingree@SportsLocalAgate:agate_lineQuarters:: Spears 3-5-12, Fulmer 2-0-6, Assad 11-1-26, Reardon 6-0-12, Lentini 7-2-17, Leone 1-0-2. @SportsLocalAgate:agate_lineQuarters:Totals@SportsLocalAgate:agate_lineQuarters: 30-8-75@SportsLocalAgate:agate_lineQuarters:.
agate_lineQuarters:Halftime@SportsLocalAgate:agate_lineQuarters:: Pingree, 38-26.
agate_lineQuarters:3-pointers@SportsLocalAgate:agate_lineQuarters:: W, Smith 4, McLaren 2, Ozgunus 2, Ullcer; P, Assad 3, Fulmer 2, Spears, Lentini.
agate_lineQuarters:Records@SportsLocalAgate:agate_lineQuarters:: P, 18-6.