Whew! Close one: Herrick hits pair of late free throws as No. 1 Monument Mountain holds off No. 5 Wahconah to advance to Western Mass. D-III championship game
AMHERST — No. 1 Monument Mountain coach Mike Saporito has dreaded facing Wahconah's swarming zone defense since the days when legendary Warriors coach Ed Ladley roamed the sidelines. When No. 5 Wahconah showed man-to-man on the Spartans' final offensive possession of a tied Western Massachusetts Division III semifinal, Saporito knew exactly how he wanted to attack.
He put his best playmakers — freshman guard Dion Brown and junior forward Graham Herrick — in a pick-and-roll. With 16.7 seconds left, Brown used Herrick's screen and turned the corner on his defender. He put up a contested layup and missed, but Herrick was in position to grab the offensive rebound and drew a foul. Herrick, a stoic player that always seems in control of his emotions, calmly drained both free throws, putting Monument up two with 6.4 to go. Monument pressured the Warriors ensuing inbounds play, slowing them down just enough to throw off their timing, forcing a rushed shot from sophomore Kevin Huban that missed the mark and gave Monument a 61-59 win Tuesday. The win advances Monument to the Western Mass. final for the first time in 19 years. They'll face No. 2 Easthampton in the championship game Saturday at 4 p.m.
"It feels great," Herrick said on sinking the winning free throws. "Kevin [Troiano] really picked up, I don't even know if he missed a free throw the whole time. We were all just picking up after him. He set the tone and we tried to come up for him."
Sinking the winning foul shots provides a bit of irony, because Monument's poor shooting from the line put Wahconah in position to comeback. The Spartans entered the final quarter leading 47-37. Wahconah's Tom O'Connor (11 points) started the scoring with a trey, and Monument proceeded to go 3 of 9 from the charity stripe over the first half of the fourth.
Brown split a pair of free throws with less than a minute left, setting up Huban for the game-tying triple with 27.4 seconds left.
The shot shifted the pressure onto the shoulders of the top-seeded team, but Monument did not fold.
"I just tried not to think about it," Herrick said of going to the line in a pressure-packed moment. "Just put my shot up like I do in practice."
Wahconah's go-to scorer O'Connor helped keep the team close, but two reserves closed the gap in the fourth. Trailing 48-40, Huban and senior guard Antwaun Fye combined for the Warriors' final 19 points. Fye scored 10 of the team's 12 points during a three-minute run, closing the deficit to two. Fye did a great job of beating his man off the dribble and converting through contact. He scored all 12 of his points in the second half. Huban led all scorers with 22 points.
"Huban's played really well," Wahconah coach Dustin Belcher said. "He played really well at Narragansett the other night. He's really come on the second half of the season. Antwaun is just so dynamic. Can get to the rim and make things happen.
"Our philosophy going into the fourth going was we've got to let it loose. No regrets, put it all out there. I think the guys definitely played more free. ... That's what I'm most proud of. We could've folded there. It started to look pretty bleak there for a while. To come back and tie the game, and just the way they played at the end, very proud of them. The hustle, the effort and the character of this club."
Caleb Carlson's 3-pointer with 5:20 left in the third gave Monument its biggest lead at 13 points. Strong free-throw shooting (16 of 19 overall) and a Huban 3-pointer helped Wahconah get within eight. After building the lead back up to nine, the Spartans avoided a momentum-changing sequence after Dylan Brownson got hit with a technical foul. Huban split the technical foul shots, giving the Warriors the ball back down eight. Wahconah set a couple well-placed screens, freeing up Jeremy Girard for a triple that could've made it a two-possession game, but the shot missed everything. Monument ended the quarter up 10.
Herrick led Monument with 18 points and three rebounds. Noah Helmke recorded a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
"We've had trouble with quicker guards all year," Saporito said of Wahconah's comeback attempt. "We've got a lot of big guys and a lot of good basketball players. Fundamentally sound. We don't have a lot guys who are really swift on their feet. Other than [Noel] Powell and Dion Brown, we don't have a lot of quickness laterally.
"They ran some crafty plays. Double-high screens. They ran a nail cut several times where they were able to gap us. Credit Dustin and his game plan. ... I think the fans got their monies worth in terms of good basketball product, both teams."
The first half was a game of runs between the two Berkshire County foes.
Monument came out in a man-to-man defense, and Wahconah did a good job of beating its individual matchups. O'Connor scored five straight during a 9-2 run to start the contest. Wahconah started in a 2-3 zone, and Herrick and Troiano (13 points) showed their feel for the game, finding the spaces in between the defense to strike.
A bank-shot trey from O'Connor put the Warriors up 14-8 with 1:20 left in the first quarter.
A Powell reverse layup and a Brown trey cut Monument's deficit to one.
Monument carried its strong shooting from the perimeter into the second quarter. Powell's jumper gave the Spartans their first lead of the game 1:25 in. Herrick followed with a nice stepback jumper for three, putting Monument up 18-14. Helmke hit two free throws late, giving Monument a six-point lead at halftime.
The clutch victory ended the Spartans' 19-year Western Mass. final appearance drought. Saporito credited their unselfishness with propelling them to the final. Now the next step is to claim a space on a championship banner for the first time in 39 years.
Saporito said his squad is eager to fill that blank space on the gymnasium wall.
"We're dreaming of filling that space and now it's closer to a reality," he said. "We just have to stay focused and be as diligent with our focus intensity at the end of the race as we've been at the beginning of the race."
Girard 0-0-0, Clayton 2-3-7, Huban 6-8-22, Burris 2-1-5, Noyes 1-0-2, O'Connor 4-0-11, Fye 4-4-12, Lee 0-0-0, Gai 0-0-0. Totals: 19-16-59.
Higgins 0-0-0, Brown 2-3-8, Powell 2-0-4, Alston 0-0-0, Carlson 2-0-5, Troiano 4-5-13, Brownson 0-0-0, Herrick 6-5-18, Helmke 3-5-13. Totals: 19-18-61.
Wahconah 14 9 14 22 — 59
Monument 13 15 19 14 — 61
3-point goals — W 5 (Huban 2, O'Connor 3). MM 5 (Brown, Carlson, Herrick, Helmke 2).
Akeem Glaspie can be reached at email@example.com, at @TheAkeemGlaspie on Twitter and 413-496-6252.
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