By Matt Jenkins
---- — On Basketball
BOSTON — Nine faces on the TD Garden parquet carried grimacing or stone-faced looks as the final minutes of a tense, physical Division 3 state semifinal melted off the jumbotron.
The 10th face — belonging to Danvers senior guard Eric Martin — was animated, spitting out encouragement to teammates, urging the large contingent of fans wearing Falcon blue to get loud, and just generally breathing the moment in.
Based on Martin’s attitude, intensity and competitive spirit, it only makes sense that the Northeastern Conference Small MVP made the biggest shot in Danvers’ 50-47 win over Martha’s Vineyard. Martin and the Falcons will now get a shot to repeat as state champions when they face Smith Academy of Hatfield on Saturday (12:30 p.m.) at Worcester’s DCU Center.
Advancement by the Falcons was hardly a sure thing against the Vineyarders, a long, athletic team that played an air-tight zone defense. Hoops were hard to come by, especially late in the game, but Martin made an awkward jump shot with the shot clock running out and only a shade over one minute remaining.
An attempt to get senior guard Nick McKenna open on the wing fell through and the ball rotated back to Martin, who tried to square up as he was releasing a shot off his right shoulder from the foul line.
The bucket dropped, giving Danvers a 47-43 advantage. It was the last of only two fourth quarter field goals for the Falcons.
“How did that go in?,” Danvers coach John Walsh asked. “When he shot it, I knew it was going in — because that’s what Eric does.
“It was disgusting. It looked like a shot put.”
That, in a nutshell, sums up Eric Martin the basketball player.
Martin is a star soccer player bound for UMass Lowell, which is transitioning into a Division 1 program. He’s a scoring machine on the pitch, but on the hardwood he barely passes the eye-test.
He lacks the smooth skills most league MVPs possess, but he earned that honor by being intelligent, tough and, obviously, clutch.
“I don’t know (how that shot went in). That was crazy,” McKenna said. “We had a designed play for me to go out and get it, and they covered me quick. I saw Eric wide open and yelled to him to shoot. He wasn’t even looking at the hoop and just caught it and turned and threw it.
”It went in. It’s better to be lucky than good sometimes.”
There’s luck, but then there’s Martin luck. It would be surprising for most players to make a shot like that, but it’s become second nature for Martin to make something happen with the game on the line.
“Eric always seems to come up with big shots and big plays,” senior forward Dan Connors said.
It’s also a mistake to overlook Martin’s leadership. No matter how tense the situation may be, Martin brings a sense of calm to his comrades.
Last night, after each of the Vineyarders’ six fourth-quarter turnovers, Martin could be seen applauding his teammates for their effort. After surrendered baskets or committed fouls, he was there to remind the Falcons where they should have been.
Judging him simply by his six points and six assists against Martha’s Vineyard wouldn’t be fair.
This team, now 23-2 and one win away from back-to-back state titles, developed a rallying cry late in the season, and it was one that was born out of Martin’s effort.
“We’ve been saying the last couple weeks ‘sell out’. It’s our senior year, we’ve got four senior captains, everyone needs to sell out,” McKenna said.
“Eric exemplifies that in every way. He sells out every single play he’s on the court. It motivates everyone because if you’re not playing as hard as Eric, he’s going to let you know about it and you gotta step it up.”
Saturday afternoon these seniors will take the floor together one last time, hoping to make a little history.
“Repeating is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in sports because every team comes out like (Martha’s Vineyard) and they all want to beat you. All their fans get into it and it seems like it’s been us against the world for this whole tournament,” Martin said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be the same this year, and every game was going to be a fight.
“Hopefully we’re ready for one more.”
Matt Jenkins is a staff writer at the Salem News. He can be reached by phone at 978-338-2648, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @MattJenkins_SN.