No. 6 Taconic boys basketball team knocks off No. 1 Northampton to win Western Massachusetts Division II title
AMHERST — In a moment 41 years in the making, Taconic senior Javier Osorio approached the free throw line with 4.1 seconds left in the Western Massachusetts Division II championship game against Northampton on Saturday.
The Braves held a one-point lead, and Osorio had a chance to etch his name in Braves basketball history. A successful trip to the line would force a desperation heave from deep, greatly increasing Taconic's odds of taking home the title.
Osorio let the foul shot go, but it rimmed out. Northampton's Andy Grygorcewicz grabbed the rebound and threw a lead pass to Jaeden Johndrow. Now the Braves' storybook ending appeared to be heading toward a nightmare.
Taconic needed a stop, and in a play that typified the Braves' season, the underdogs from Pittsfield relied on their defense in the clutch. Christian Womble and Quentin Gittens raced back on defense, closing out hard on Johndrow and forcing his 3-pointer to miss the mark. The defensive stand gave No. 6 Taconic a 44-43 win over the top seed, clinching the Braves' first Western Mass. title since 1977. The Braves advance to face Central Mass. champion Shepherd Hill Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at Worcester State University.
Osorio, the lone senior on the team envisioned himself being in position to give Taconic a Western Mass. title. He couldn't sink the winning shot, but he never doubted his teammates' ability to pick him up and secure the win.
"Flashbacks to all the summer waking up early. Flashbacks to how we lost last year, and all my friends back home, everyone that helped us through this journey," Osorio said of his thoughts as he toed the free throw line.
Getting a defensive stop was a fitting end to a game that was a defensive battle throughout. Womble sank his second of back-to-back 3-pointers with 5:30 left in the fourth, putting the Taconic up 44-35. The Braves did not score again. They went 0 for 6 from the free throw line down the stretch.
Northampton's go-to player Diego Corrada-Mattei sank a layup with 1:55 left, bringing his squad within one. The teams traded stops, with Mohammed Sanogo grabbing key rebounds and Womble forcing a crucial steal. Corrada-Mattei returned the favor, poking the ball away with 25.3 seconds left.
Both cheering sections were chanting with vigor as Corrada-Mattei gathered the ball at the top of the key off a feed from Grygorcewicz. He used a screen from Grygorcewicz and attacked the basket going left. Sanogo, all 6-foot-6 of him, contested hard, forcing a miss. Isaac Percy grabbed the rebound, but Northampton forced a jump ball, getting the ball back with 11.1 seconds left.
Northampton went back to its top two players in the clutch. Grygorcewicz and Corrada-Mattei worked a pick-and-pop, with Grygorcewicz flaring out behind the 3-point arc. Before Corrada-Mattei could pass back to the big man, Grygorcewicz slipped, giving Percy just enough recovery time to close out on Grygorcewicz as he launched from deep. Osorio grabbed the miss, setting up the winning stop after the missed free throw.
"We are happy with the looks we got," Northampton coach Reynaud Harp said. "We got two shots that we think are good looks for the way we play. They didn't make them today.
"Diego and Andy are both big-time performers in clutch situations. ... I was hoping to get in a situation where our defense would have a chance to hold a lead. Give me a one-point lead, I think with this group and the way we play defense down the stretch, I think we win that game."
Every possession proved to be crucial with such a slim margin of victory, and no player played with more urgency than Gittens. Gittens led the way with 12 points, 14 rebounds and four assists. Eight of his boards came on the offensive end. His ability to create extra possessions was one of the deciding factors in the game.
"Basically, this game meant everything to us," Gittens said. "From being a kid growing up and going to coach [Bill] Heaphy's camps, this is all we knew, that we wanted to win Western Mass.
"So I just had the energy and the passion to really just get any rebound, just so we could make sure we could win this game."
Gittens was a jack-of-all-trades for the Braves throughout. He sank two free throws early in the first quarter, giving the Braves a lead they did not relinquish.
When the Blue Devils started the second half on a 6-2 run, Gittens ended the rally with a layup off a hard drive to the basket. And, it was his passes that setup Womble for the final two 3-pointers of the contest.
"He was key for," Heaphy said of Gittens' play. "He gave us so many extra possessions, kept balls alive. If you're the other team, those are momentum killers.
"He just gets his hands on stuff, he makes good decisions. His mind is really what I like, because he thinks the game, he's quick making calls — he's our glue guy."
The Braves are living proof that defense wins championships. The fact that they played much of the second half with their best interior defender, Sanogo, on the bench with foul trouble is a testament to the team effort against the Blue Devils.
Osorio did his part on defense, grabbing six rebounds. Percy (nine points) did a great job of shadowing his opponent on the perimeter throughout. Offensively, the senior captain had five of his seven points in the first half. He banked in a 3-pointer with 4:18 left in the first half, putting the Braves up eight.
For Heaphy, the longtime coach gets his first Western Mass. title in his 18-year career. It took four tries to take home the trophy, but he can finally add Western Mass. title to a long list of career achievements.
"It's kind of ironic because we really had so much trouble early in the year scoring and we had to rely on our defense," he said. "I think that kind of sustained itself throughout the year, and it came down to — we had to get stops. That's what I'm most proud of. We had to grind it out. It wasn't pretty, like a rock fight.
"We got stops when we needed 'em. Hey, a win's a win. We're going to take it."
Only Osorio and Percy received playing time on last year's Western Mass runner-up squad, but the current group of Braves entered this year's tournament with a chip on their collective shoulder. As they posed with the Division II trophy and championship banner, they held up the number six with their hands. One finger for all six teams ranked ahead of them in the tournament. They left the Curry-Hicks Cage as No. 1.
Womble 2-0-6, Gittens 3-6-12, Davis 1-0-3, Osorio 3-0-7, Percy 4-0-9, Sayers 1-0-2, Tayi 0-0-0, McCown 0-2-2, Sanogo 1-1-3. Totals: 15-9-44.
Corrada-Mattei 4-2-11, DeJesus 0-0-0, Johndrow 2-0-4, Grygorcewicz 2-3-7, McCarthy 4-8-16, Pion 0-0-0, Moreau 1-0-2, Thurston 0-0-0, Wills 1-0-3, Grant 0-0-0. Totals: 14-13-43.
Taconic 10 14 12 8 — 44
Northampton 9 19 13 11 — 43
3-point goals — T 5 (Womble 2, Davis, Osorio, Percy). N 2 (Corrada-Mattei, Wills).
Akeem Glaspie can be reached at email@example.com, at @TheAkeemGlaspie on Twitter and 413-496-6252.
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