Wednesday, March 12, 2014
AMHERST — Once the shots started to fall for Quaboag, the Smith Academy boys basketball team couldn’t keep up.
The bigger, longer Cougars made 11 3-pointers against the Falcons’ 2-3 zone as they pulled away to win the Western Massachusetts Division 4 Tournament championship, 63-48, Saturday at Curry Hicks Cage.
It was the first sectional title for top-seeded Quaboag (23-2), which will play Hopedale (18-6) in the state semifinals Tuesday at 4 p.m. at the MassMutual Center in Springfield.
“It sucks to lose, especially my senior year,” Smith Academy’s Keith Natale said. “I won’t put on my jersey every again, but I loved every minute of it.”
The No. 2 Falcons, who won the Western Mass. Division 3 title last year and advanced to the state finals, finished 19-3.
“This year, these guys’ backs were against the wall,” Smith coach Matt Zerneri said. “The target was on their backs this season. To go 17-3 on the season and have a 13-game win streak, I’m proud. It shows how tough the kids are and how good and how much they wanted to play.”
Smith Academy jumped out to an 8-0 lead behind five points by Austin Rogers and a 3-pointer by Christian Smiarowski. The Cougars called a timeout and responded with four 3s to take a 16-14 lead after the first period.
“They were hitting their 3s,” Natale said. “We were leaving them open and they were knocking them down.”
Quaboag sandwiched 3s around a Derek McMahon trey to open the second, then pulled out to a 30-23 lead at halftime. In the third, the Cougars led by as many as 14 twice to effectively take control.
Will Watkins (19 points) hit two of his five 3-pointers, while Jake Wisniewski (20 points) and Ethan Lacaire (17 points) each had one as Quaboag led 50-36 before Keith Natale ended the third with a 3 of his own.
“I didn’t expect them to shoot that well,” Zerneri said. “I saw them about four times this year and each time they hadn’t shot close to that. We said they had to hit 3s to beat us and they did. The key was to make Jake work for everything. We knew he would score but it was to make him work for everything and try to tire him out. He’s a good player and played well. They just had a little more than we did.”
The Falcons rallied a bit early in the fourth but couldn’t piece together a long enough run. Natale opened the final frame with two free throws, then after a Greg Sokol basket for Quabaog, McMahon (20 points, four assists, four steals) found Rogers inside for a bucket. McMahon then stole the ball and found Natale (14 points, 10 rebounds), who was fouled. The forward made both free throws to pull Smith within 52-45.
But Quaboag answered. Wisniewski hit a tough turnaround in the paint with Natale all over the junior, then Wisniewski found Lacaire under the basket for a layup.
McMahon hit a free throw to keep the deficit at 56-46, but Lacaire passed on an open 3 to drive baseline for a layup.
“We haven’t seen size like that, or physical play like that,” Zerneri said. “Greenfield is the closest that we’ve faced that plays as physical as they did. Their size wears you down.”
With 3:10 left, Will Halloran’s 3-pointer went halfway down but missed for Smith. Lacaire came right back with a deep 3 of his own to give Quaboag a commanding 61-46 lead with 2:56 left.
“That hurts. (The plan) was to try to make the other guys beat us and see what happens. They did. They were able to hit them,” Zerneri said. “They shot 6 for 13 (on 3-pointers) in the first half. That’s a tough percentage to come back from. If you going to shoot that well you have to match them and we weren’t able to do that today.”
It was the final game for Smith seniors McMahon, Natale, Halloran and Bobby Gagne.
“It’s tough. We’re not the type of team to get here and be content,” McMahon said. “Getting here wasn’t good enough. We really wanted to get this one but it doesn’t always turn out in your favor.”
Mike Moran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WMass Division 4 Final
Quaboag 63, Smith Academy 48
Smiarowski 1-0-3, McMahon 7-2-20, Natale 3-6-14, Halloran 1-0-2, Banas 0-0-0, Rogers 3-1-7, Liebenow 0-2-2. Totals: 15-11-48
Spencer 1-0-3, Watkins 7-0-19, Lacaire 7-0-17, Sokol 2-0-4, Wisniewski 8-2-20. Totals: 25-2-63
Smith Academy 14 9 16 9—48
Quaboag 16 14 20 13—63
3-pointers: Smith Academy 7 (McMahon 4, Natale 2, Smiarowski) Quaboag 11 (Watkins 5, Lacaire 3, Wisniewski 2, Spencer)