ORANGE -- The Mahar boys basketball team is headed to the Curry Hicks Cage for the semifinals of the Western Massachusetts Division III tournament.
The No. 4 seeded Senators dispatched fifth-seeded Wahconah, 51-49, on Friday night at the Grzesik-Bixby Complex in Orange, but it was anything but easy.
"That Wahconah team was like Freddy Krueger," said Senators' head coach Chad Softic. "They just kept coming and coming and coming, and just when you think you put them away, it's like a bad dream, and here's Freddy again."
Fortunately for Mahar (16-5), it didn't end with a nightmare in Orange, as the Warriors fought hard and outscored the Senators, 20-15, in the final quarter, the only frame in which Wahconah dropped in more than 10.
Nick Slattery scored 21 on the night to lead all scorers, including five treys, but no points were more important than the two free-throws he dropped in with 8 seconds remaining in the game. The Senators were clinging to a precarious three-point lead, and had struggled at the line in the previous two minutes, including Slattery missing two freebies 1:06 earlier. When the sharpshooter calmly drained those final two from the charity stripe, it made it a two-possession game at 51-46, and made the last long 3-pointer, drained from way back by Marco Anastasio at the buzzer, irrelevant.
"I'm proud of the guys," Wahconah's first-year coach Dustin Belcher said. "We showed a lot of guts battling back tonight.
As important as Slattery's offense was to the Senators, Softic also had high praise for his team's defensive effort, and especially senior Troix Adams, who seemed to be everywhere.
"We came out in man early, and to save us from fouling everyone out, we went to a 2-3 zone. I think it actually stunned them, especially in the first half. Look at Troix Adams, making all those rebounds in traffic ... he's just been Mr. Dependable all year long," reflected Softic.
The Senators trailed only once in the contest at 2-0, when Slattery hit the first of his three-balls, two and a half minutes into the first quarter. The Warriors (13-8) were able to tie the contest at 9, but Mahar finished the quarter up 13-10. Neither team appeared to be poised to make a run in the second quarter, as the defenses were smothering on both sides. Both teams were scoreless for 4 1/2 minutes between the 6:20 and 2:50 marks, with Mahar escaping with a 24-19 edge at the half.
The third quarter saw the Senators extend their lead to seven at 36-29, but the start of the fourth saw Wahconah's Ryan McMahon drop in a trey on its first possession to cut the lead to four. The Warriors just wouldn't quit, and when Collin Parrott dropped in a three-ball with 8 seconds left, cutting the lead to three, you could hear a pin drop in the gymnasium. All's well that ends well, however, as that set up Slattery's free throws that iced it, and Mahar's fans, players, and coaches could finally exhale, and start planning the trip to Amherst for the semis.
Troix Adams brought some offense to the table as well, dropping in 10 on the night. Malik Adams added 7, and Brendin Woodard poured in 4. Nick Zanga, Jake Paul, and Drew Patria each threw in three.
Parrott led Wahconah with 20 points, and dropped in five three-balls of his own. Anastasio scored 11, and Marcus Duncan and Cole Morrison each put in five.
"We have most of the team back" next year, said Belcher. "We're excited. It doesn't make this sting any less."