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South Hadley boys basketball advances to first state final

  • Evan Marcus of South Hadley, center, drives to the basket against Brandon Weyant of St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Evan Marcus of South Hadley, center, drives to the basket against Brandon Weyant of St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.
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  • The South Hadley bench locks arms and celebrates during the last minute of their team's win against St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    The South Hadley bench locks arms and celebrates during the last minute of their team's win against St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.
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  • T.J. Fitzell of South Hadley celebrates his team's win against St. Bernard Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    T.J. Fitzell of South Hadley celebrates his team's win against St. Bernard Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.
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  • T.J. Fitzell of South Hadley celebrates his team's win against St. Bernard Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    T.J. Fitzell of South Hadley celebrates his team's win against St. Bernard Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.
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  • Avon White of South Hadley, right, drives to the basket against Garrett Stephenson of St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Avon White of South Hadley, right, drives to the basket against Garrett Stephenson of St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.
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  • Nate Flachs of South Hadley, left, shoots against Paul Comaskey of St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Nate Flachs of South Hadley, left, shoots against Paul Comaskey of St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.
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  • Ryan Marcus of South Hadley, top, drives to the basket against St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Ryan Marcus of South Hadley, top, drives to the basket against St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.
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  • South Hadley players T.J. Fitzell, left, and Ryan Marcus, right, defend against John Crawley of St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    South Hadley players T.J. Fitzell, left, and Ryan Marcus, right, defend against John Crawley of St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.
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  • T.J. Fitzell of South Hadley, right, shoots against Michael McGuirl of St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    T.J. Fitzell of South Hadley, right, shoots against Michael McGuirl of St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.
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  • South Hadley fans cheer during their team's win against St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.JERREY ROBERTS

    South Hadley fans cheer during their team's win against St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • South Hadley Head Coach Jeff Guiel, center, gives instructions to Anthony Bulloughs, left, and Evan Marcus during their team's win against St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester. <br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    South Hadley Head Coach Jeff Guiel, center, gives instructions to Anthony Bulloughs, left, and Evan Marcus during their team's win against St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.
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  • South Hadley players Nate Flachs, left, Anthony Bulloughs, and others celebrate their team's win against St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    South Hadley players Nate Flachs, left, Anthony Bulloughs, and others celebrate their team's win against St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • South Hadley players Anthony Bulloughs, from left, Austin Ford and Evan Maryea celebrate their team's win against St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester. Griffin Fitzell looks on, front.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    South Hadley players Anthony Bulloughs, from left, Austin Ford and Evan Maryea celebrate their team's win against St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester. Griffin Fitzell looks on, front.
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  • Anthony Bulloughs of South Hadley, front, celebrates his team's win against St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Anthony Bulloughs of South Hadley, front, celebrates his team's win against St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Evan Marcus of South Hadley, center, drives to the basket against Brandon Weyant of St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • The South Hadley bench locks arms and celebrates during the last minute of their team's win against St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • T.J. Fitzell of South Hadley celebrates his team's win against St. Bernard Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • T.J. Fitzell of South Hadley celebrates his team's win against St. Bernard Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Avon White of South Hadley, right, drives to the basket against Garrett Stephenson of St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Nate Flachs of South Hadley, left, shoots against Paul Comaskey of St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Ryan Marcus of South Hadley, top, drives to the basket against St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • South Hadley players T.J. Fitzell, left, and Ryan Marcus, right, defend against John Crawley of St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • T.J. Fitzell of South Hadley, right, shoots against Michael McGuirl of St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • South Hadley fans cheer during their team's win against St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.JERREY ROBERTS
  • South Hadley Head Coach Jeff Guiel, center, gives instructions to Anthony Bulloughs, left, and Evan Marcus during their team's win against St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester. <br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • South Hadley players Nate Flachs, left, Anthony Bulloughs, and others celebrate their team's win against St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • South Hadley players Anthony Bulloughs, from left, Austin Ford and Evan Maryea celebrate their team's win against St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester. Griffin Fitzell looks on, front.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Anthony Bulloughs of South Hadley, front, celebrates his team's win against St. Bernard's Tuesday at DCU Center in Worcester.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

WORCESTER — T.J. Fitzell helped his South Hadley boys basketball team to the sectional title without scoring many points. His role switched in Tuesday night’s Division 2 state semifinal, and the junior guard responded.

Fitzell staked the Tigers to an early lead it would relinquish only once to St. Bernard’s, then put South Hadley ahead for good in a 63-48 victory at the DCU Center.

“In the last two games, I needed to focus on defense and try to shut down the other teams’ best players,” Fitzell said. “Tonight my job was to score some points. I want to do whatever the team needs from me. That’s why we’re so successful, every guy does his role.”

After allowing a seven-point lead to start the second half get away in the third, the Tigers outscored the Bernardians 23-8 in the final quarter to earn their first state final appearance in program history.

“This is a special group of kids and they’ve listened all season,” South Hadley coach Jeff Guiel said. “Mental toughness is so important in the world, never mind basketball. With our schedule during the season, we take our lumps but always get back up. This game showed that. I’m so proud of these guys.”

South Hadley (17-7) will face eastern Massachusetts champion Brighton (20-6) for the Division 2 state championship at 4 p.m. Saturday at the DCU Center.

“It certainly feels great to be the first team to get to a state final after seven times reaching the semis,” senior guard Evan Marcus said. “Hopefully we can come back here and take it all.”

Fitzell and Marcus each scored a team-high 20 points. Fitzell scored 15 of his in the first half, while Marcus took over after halftime with 16.

With the game tied at 40 entering the fourth, the two combined to reclaim the lead. On the first possession of the quarter, Fitzell drained his sixth 3-pointer of the game for a 43-40 lead.

With just under five minutes to play, Marcus hit the first of his two 3s for a 48-42 lead. At the 2:33 mark, he knocked down his second from the right wing to make it 53-46 and start a game-ending 13-2 run.

“Getting the lead back was big and it shot our energy level up, then Evan hit those two big 3s,” Fitzell said. “In basketball every team makes a run, so you have to be mentally tough and battle back.”

Marcus hit all six of his foul shots down the stretch, while Avon White (10 points) and Anthony Bullough (six) added a pair apiece as the Tigers iced the game.

The fourth-quarter heroics were made possible by an outstanding South Hadley defense which limited St. Bernard’s (19-5) to contested outside jump shots most of the night.

John Crawley scored a game-high 25 points for the Bernardians and Austin Wood added 12 on four 3-pointers. But nobody else had more than four.

“Crawley is a phenomenal player and he’s going to get his points, even though we focused on him,” Fitzell said. “But we did a nice job on everyone else — we weren’t going to let one guy beat us.”

Marcus said, “We knew coming in if we limited Crawley some and didn’t let their other guys go off, we’d have a great chance to win.”

The first quarter quickly turned into the Fitzell show, as he knocked down five 3-pointers to help the Tigers take a 21-15 lead after the first. He scored 12 consecutive South Hadley points to end the quarter.

“It gives you a ton of confidence to hit the first one, especially at an arena you’ve never played at before,” Fitzell said. “A big confidence booster. At that point, I just needed to keep shooting.”

South Hadley went cold from the field in the middle two quarters, scoring just 10 points in the second and nine in the third. Fitzell did not score a single point from the end of the first to his 3-pointer to begin the fourth.

“Everything starts with defense, that’s our main focus,” Marcus said. “Even in those cold stretches we knew we’d eventually make shots if we got stops on the other end. Defense was going to win us the game.”

The Tigers handled the size and length of the Bernardians who got little production from feeding the post often in the first half.

Senior center Bullough, who gave up 5 inches to Andrew Baron of St. Bernard’s, led a solid effort on the boards as South Hadley limited second-chance points.

“They had four guys bigger than Anthony, who’s our center,” Guiel said. “He’s such an athletic kid that he more than held his own.”

The final buzzer set off a celebration for a team that had just made program history. But the Tigers quickly focused on the next and final test.

“We’re not satisfied yet, we’re going into Saturday looking to win a state title,” Fitzell said. “We’ve won western Mass. before, and our goal this season was to win it all.”

Guiel said, “We challenged our guys today about still being hungry, and this game showed they still want more. We’ll certainly need to play even better on Saturday.”

Michael Wilkinson can be reached at mwilkinson@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @mjwilk1237.

Division 2 state semifinals

South Hadley 63, St. Bernard’s 48

Tigers (17-7)

White 3-4-10, Marcus 5-8-20, G. Fitzell 0-0-0, T.J. Fitzell 7-0-20, Reed 0-0-0, Ford 0-0-0, Flachs 0-0-0, Bullough 2-2-6, Garbacik 0-0-0, McKenna 0-0-0, Sears 0-0-0, Earle 3-0-7, Fiori 0-0-0. Totals: 20-14-63

Bernardians (19-5)

Crawley 9-7-25, Comaskey 2-0-4, Wood 4-0-12, McGuirl 0-2-2, Stephenson 1-0-2, Baron 1-1-3. Totals: 17-10-48

South Hadley 21 10 9 23—63

St. Bernard’s 15 9 16 8—48

3-pointers: South Hadley 9 (T.J. Fitzell 6, Marcus 2, Earle 1); St. Bernard’s 4 (Wood 4)

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