SPRINGFIELD — For 12 seniors on Taconic’s Boys Basketball team, the start of Monday night’s game must have been a horror show playing out in slow-motion.
Three consecutive one-and-done appearances for the Braves had led to a 10-3 deficit for the No. 2 seed with 30 seconds left in the first quarter of the Division II Western Mass semifinals.
A 10-3 hole with absolutely nothing going right may have been a death knell for a younger, less-experienced team. But Taconic’s upperclassmen core has been through the ringer and then some, most of them together for multiple sports seasons and a variety of different championships. Head Coach Bill Heaphy joked earlier in the season that he had probably 10 guys who were captains in different sports.
From top to bottom, those veterans stepped up and overcame South Hadley 58-51, punching a ticket to the Western Mass title game Saturday night at The Cage.
“It’s real clear to them that this is it and it means a lot to all of them, not just a small group of them,” said Heaphy.
Early on, though, nothing was falling. Shots at the rim trickled around and out and outside of a Devon Walker trey midway through the frame, Taconic’s long-range calibration led to clanging rebound after clanging rebound.
“I was trying to figure out if we were going to score at all,” joked Heaphy. “Once we calmed down, I could tell. South Hadley did a good job defensively and our guys weren’t sure what to run. We were stagnant and that never leads to good stuff.”
With seconds remaining, senior guard Izaiya Mestre (19 points) attacked the defensive glass and pulled down a rebound. He wasted no time looking for an outlet or checking his surroundings, instead blasting up court himself. A sigh of relief was uttered from all Berkshire County residents in attendance as the layup finally dropped through at the buzzer.
Taconic’s defense continued to stall South Hadley in the second quarter, eventually finding some offense to draw within 10-9. Then the seal broke a bit, but not in the way many may have assumed. Jack Cooney put down a three, just his eighth of the season, followed by Drew DeMartino’s sixth career three.
With a lead, the Braves began to muscle ahead. Deonte Sandifer picked a pocket and streaked for two. He then found Mestre for a three to put THS up 24-18 with 58 seconds left in the half.
“Most of us have been here before, but we haven’t won,” said Sandifer. “It made all the difference. We knew that we had to work on some things to come out today and get a win. My teammates, we work hard at practice and we didn’t want to go out 0-4 in playoff games.”
The lead was seven at the break, a 12-point swing over eight minutes. Mestre stuck another from downtown to open the third. He turned to holler at Braves bench with a 10-point edge on South Hadley. Sandifer and he hooked up off a long rebound to make it 35-20 midway through the quarter.
Taconic’s advantage got to as high as 19, but the Tigers had a run left in them. The Braves went cold again to start the fourth, held without a field goal for nearly four minutes. Senior big Matt Grochowalski (21 points) stroked from outside and in the paint. He opened the fourth with a pair of corner threes, drawing to within six with two minutes left.
It dropped to four with 1:10 on the clock, but DeMartino came up big again. Sandifer took a pick moving left and collapsed the defense. He kicked to the junior forward who found the range for a 55-48 lead.
“It was just a high pick-and-roll and my first thought was to get to the basket, but then they closed in on me so I had to kick it,” said Sandifer. “He hit a dagger.”
“The guys know if they bust on defense, then if they’ve got an open look on offense they can take it,” added Heaphy. “It goes to show the confidence he has to take that one, that’s a big shot. We trust Deonte to have the ball in his hands in those moments and make the right call.”
Grochowalski answered with a three-point play with 35 seconds left. Taconic’s defense was too much, though. For the second time this season, Sandifer and Cooney combined to hold down player of the year candidate Calvin Bridges.
“He’s a great player. He’s quick, but he can shoot, so I knew I had couldn’t give him much space,” said Sandifer. “But he’s so quick so you have to be ready for a move. He caught me with a couple in-and-outs, but we did a good job overall.”
This time, Bridges went for just eight points and was forced to miss a big one in the final minute. Brett Murphy sealed Grochowalski and fired the outlet to Sandifer, who hit both free-throws to seal it.
“He’s really the key to them. Deonte did a great job on him last game too, and when he picked up three [fouls] we put Jack on him,” said Heaphy. “We had to some how try to contain him. We knew it’d be a challenge but Deonte and Jack were big keeping Bridges down.”