Northampton eliminates Amherst from postseason contention

Friday, February 28, 2014
AMHERST — The regular-season finale for the Amherst Regional boys basketball team had all the makings of a potential classic — the Hurricanes needed a win on senior night against their rival to qualify for the postseason.

Two seniors rose to the occasion for Amherst, but Northampton junior Aidan Hirsch rallied the Blue Devils to a 53-48 victory.

“It’s so nice. It feels good,” Hirsch said of eliminating Amherst. “So many years in Suburban, we lost a lot. To win now, feels good.”

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Trailing 41-30 with two minutes left in the third quarter, Hirsch keyed a 13-0 Northampton run to give the Blue Devils a 43-41 lead. Amherst briefly tied the game, but Jake Ross (18 points) hit a deep jumper and Hamp never trailed again.

“When we need baskets, it helps having those two guys out there on the court,” Blue Devils coach Rey Harp said.

It was a big win for Northampton (15-4, 8-1 Valley Wheel), which saw its eight-game winning streak end with a 67-59 loss to West Springfield on Monday.

“This game meant as much to us as it did to them,” Harp said. “We didn’t always execute out there. That happens in a game that’s this intense and that has this type of rivalry between the two teams. That sort of thing happens in these games, but we played like this game really mattered to us.”

Amherst, which lost 70-49 to Northampton in the season-opening Pioneer Valley Tip-Off, finished its season 9-11, 4-6 in the league.

“They are very disappointed, especially Tom Cook,” Amherst coach Jim Matuszko said. “He’s battled injuries all year and he did a great job. Malik Ford also. Those two guys are going to be tough to replace.”

Cook (16 points) and Ford (10 points) powered the Hurricanes to an 18-9 lead after the first quarter, but the Blue Devils came back and trailed 23-21 at halftime. Cook then scored seven straight at the start of the third to lift Amherst.

He scored in the post seconds into the quarter, banked in a fade-away and then drilled a 3-pointer at the top of the key. Isaac Siegel (11 points) and Alec Snyder-Fair each added 3s, and a 5-0 run by Cook gave Amherst a 41-30 lead with two minutes left in the third.

“Tom and Malik beat us up,” Harp said. “We had a real difficult time keeping them off the boards, limiting their looks when they got the ball on the post. We had a difficult time limiting their opportunities. The engine for our defense, we had to do a better job limiting their touches.”

Cook had 12 points in the third quarter but did not score again. He was hit with his third personal foul and left the game. Amherst’s offense struggled without him and Hamp’s defense picked up.

“Give them credit, they did the things they needed to do to shut us down,” Matuszko said. “Our game plan was good. It came down to a couple possessions where we needed to take care of the ball better.”

Hirsch (22 points) started Northampton’s rally with two drives to the basket. Tyler Hannigan-Page added a fast-break basket to end the third, and Hirsch opened the fourth with a fast break, a 3 and another drive to the basket to give Hamp a 43-41 lead.

“I just had to keep my head in it when I was missing shots,” Hirsch said. “I had to keep going. They were going to fall sometimes — you have to keep shooting.”

Ford muscled his way inside to tie the game, but six points by Ross gave the Blue Devils a 49-43 lead with two minutes left. Following a timeout, Siegel drained a 3 from the corner and then pulled Amherst within 49-48 with a tough layup inside.

After a defensive stop, Amherst had a chance to take the lead, but turned the ball over.

Ross hit two from the line for a three-point Hamp lead with 26 seconds left. With seconds left, Ford had a chance to tie the game, but his 3-point attempt was blocked by Isaiah Feldman-Schwartz. Hirsch then sank two free throws to seal the win.

Mike Moran can be reached at mmoran@gazettenet.com.