By Matt Jenkins
---- — In each of the last two postseasons, the Danvers High boys basketball team has made a little history by defeating Wayland.
Two years ago, the Falcons beat the Warriors by four points to become the first boys hoop team in Danvers to win more than one playoff game since at least 1955. Last year, Danvers turned a miraculous comeback against Wayland in the final two minutes of regulation into the program’s first trip to the North final.
No such history can be achieved this afternoon when Danvers plays Wayland for the Division 3 North crown at the Tsongas Center in Lowell (3:45 p.m.), but no one associated with the Falcons thinks that will affect the team’s motivation.
The second-seeded Falcons (21-2) are a senior-laden team that understands how important it is to remain focused at this stage.
Danvers senior starters Danny Connors, Nick Bates, Nick McKenna and Eric Martin each played major roles on the team that erased a double-digit deficit in the final two minutes of regulation last year against Wayland before going on to win in overtime.
“They want to finish it out; they understand that this is the last high school basketball go-around for them. It could be their last game and that weighs on them,” Danvers coach John Walsh said. “If you don’t win it’s over, and that’s enough to motivate you. I don’t think that will be a problem for us. They’re a really good team and if we did lose, it would be because they’re the better team.”
Part of Danvers’ motivation this season has been to prove they’re just as good as last year.
“For most of us, this is the last time ever playing and all of us have grown up together,” Martin said. “Last year we had George (Merry) and this year people told us we would never win without George. That fueled us to prove everyone else (on this team) was good, too.”
Merry, a 6-foot-8 center who scored a team-high 23 points in last year’s victory, no longer plays for the Falcons, having moved on to WPI for college. Wayland’s Jaleel Bell, another major player from last year’s game, will be back, and the 6-2 senior point guard is a huge concern for Danvers.
The Warriors’ (19-4) offense runs through Bell, and he’s capable of producing huge scoring nights. He scored 34 in the team’s semifinal win over North Reading and dropped 36 against Danvers last year.
“He’s gotta be one of the best offensive rebounding guards I’ve seen in a long time, and we have to try to keep him off the glass,” Walsh said. “You can’t let him follow up with his own rebound and put it in. You can’t let him turn the corner and keep him out of the paint. He can rise up and hit the 10-15 foot jumper. He’s really tough to defend.”
Martin will likely spend a lot of time guarding Bell, but the Northeastern Conference Small MVP knows it will have to be a team effort.
“We know he’s one of the best in the whole tournament and we’ll obviously cover him man-to-man, but there are a lot of defenses we can play,” Martin said. “We’ll help and key on him most of the game, obviously.’
In addition to Bell, Wayland also returns starters Harry Leavitt, Mark Bonner and Yannick Schaefer from a year ago.
On the offensive end of the floor, Danvers could be a difficult matchup for Wayland.
The Warriors like to play zone and run a couple of three-quarter court presses. The Falcons are very good at taking care of the ball and playing zone opens up perimeter shots for McKenna, Bates and Vinny Clifford.
McKenna is averaging 20.7 points per game through the tournament and Clifford, a sophomore guard with a silky touch from three-point land, is getting 19 points per game in three tournament games.
“He just makes huge shots,” Martin said about Clifford. “We’re hard to defend when everyone can go to the hoop and Vinny and McKenna can make every shot. Clifford has shot the ball real well and we hope he keeps doing it.”
Walsh has had the Falcons focused on rebounding this postseason and that remains another area of concern, as is Wayland’s second-half strength. Wayland has broken each tournament game open in the second halves of their games this winter.
“They’re just better than teams and they don’t put them away right away,” Walsh said. “They’re very deliberate, but as time goes on their talent overtakes other teams. They’ll wear you down.”