Taconic boys basketball ready for state title rematch with TechBoston
PITTSFIELD — Taconic's final practice of the 2018-19 basketball season lasted only about an hour, Friday afternoon.
Head Coach Bill Heaphy said he didn't want to risk any minor injuries with less than 24 hours to go before the Braves tip off against TechBoston in the MIAA Division II state title game.
Taconic will face the Bears today at 2:15 p.m. at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
In truth, Heaphy's crew didn't need a long work out, filled with drills and new play designs. This group has played the maximum number of games and attended the maximum number of practices for two years straight. Last winter came to a close with the Braves falling in the state finals to that same TechBoston crew, 78-40, at the MassMutual Center in Springfield.
The team that surrounded Heaphy at center court, for a reminder to get a good night's sleep, featured almost an identical cast — give or take a deep reserve or two and graduated captain Javier Osorio — as the unit that closed out the old Taconic gym a year ago.
However, while the proverbial names on the back of the jerseys look similar, the bodies and minds that fill the green and gold duds are wildly different.
"Although we only really lost that one player, we are like a completely different team this year," senior Quincy Davis said after practice. "We're 100 percent confident that we are going to win this game tomorrow.
"We always have respect for our opponent, but we have no fear from thinking about last year."
Before the regular season, Davis said the biggest goal of his summer was conditioning, with a target of being able to hold up against a relentless and hyper-athletic TechBoston press. Back in early December, though, and more so a week into the season with Taconic off to a slow start, Saturday's rematch with the Bears must've seemed quite far away.
A 69-61 loss at Curry Hicks Cage to Putnam featured a fully audible Heaphy scolding at halftime under the bleachers. Two games later, on Dec. 14, Heaphy sat near speechless in his office after Central Massachusetts power Saint John's escaped Pittsfield with a 59-57 victory, sending the Braves to a 1-3 record.
Taconic hasn't lost since then, rolling off 19 consecutive victories and growing more confident every day.
"I was hoping I knew, with who we had back," joked Heaphy after the Braves' state semifinal win over Westborough on Wednesday.
Quentin Gittens, who missed that home loss and then five more games with a broken toe, remembered walking around school at this time last year and having classmates come up to him to show a video highlight of some TechBoston play.
"We were kind of watching them in awe. I know that's how people were thinking heading into that one," said the senior point guard. "This year we're more concerning ourselves with what they have to do to stop us."
What TechBoston will be contending with this year is a vastly improved Taconic team, across the board. The Braves are bigger, stronger, faster and supremely confident in each others' abilities.
Junior Isaac Percy was held to single-digit points in each of last season's Western Mass. final, state semi and state title games. He's now scored 82 points through three playoff games in 2019. Frontcourt-mate Mohammed Sanogo, another junior, was still learning the game and his position within it when TechBoston ran the big man off the floor last winter. Now, he has become a defensive monster in the paint, with close-out ability and a reliable offensive player at the rim or the foul line.
"[Sanogo] has made huge strides. He worked really hard this summer and looks like a whole new player this year," Osorio said when reached by phone on Friday. "Isaac has always been able to do that. It just seems like now he's more confident in his ability. He's not thinking twice about shooting. He's pulling the trigger and it's going in."
Osorio, who now suits up at American International College, has been in the stands for each of the Braves' playoff games, and likes what he sees from his former teammates.
The Braves' senior class of Davis, Gittens, Robert McCown, Christian Womble, Dedric Moody and Jaden Cross were for the most part first-year varsity players who followed Osorio into the state finals spotlight a year ago.
"I think we're a lot more mentally ready, and just a better team this year than we were last year," said Heaphy. "We were excited last year. The whole trip to Springfield was great and we were just surprising everybody that we were even there.
"That team that we faced. They were more ready than we were and it was quite a learning experience for these guys. I'm hoping we've taken that and stored it. We've done the things to improve and be a little bit more successful."
Osorio is as confident in the team as the Braves are in themselves.
"I feel like they're going to win. They're more improved everywhere. Mentally, physically, they're experienced now. They know what to do and what the other team is going to do," said Osorio. "They can go get that W."
Beyond a win or loss this afternoon at WPI, Taconic has accomplished the goal of playing basketball together for as long as the MIAA schedule will allow. When the Braves return to Pittsfield Saturday night, they just want to do so with personal effort tanks on E.
"Just give 100 percent effort and know, win or lose, that you gave it your all," said Gittens. "It's your last game playing for Taconic. Know that there wasn't a play you missed."
Womble upped the percentage by 10.
"This is probably going to be my last game playing basketball, so I'm going in and giving 110 percent," he said.
When Heaphy looks back at his team on the bus and back on the season, he wants the same.
"Just give everything they've got. There's no looking back," said Heaphy. "There's going to be mistakes made on both sides, but I just want them to go out there and say 'I competed my you-know-what-off to the best of my ability for my teammates. That's all I can ask for."
Mike Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CLNS_Walsh on Twitter and 413-496-6240.
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