Danvers Cagers 3 Wins from Second Straight D-3 State Title After Whipping Whittier

Forced to crank it up a notch from their previous two blowout tournament wins, the Danvers High Falcon Cagers got their first serious post-season test last night in the SRO Triton Regional gym and turned back Whittier Regional Voke, 69-51, in their Division 3 North section semifinal meeting.

The Falcons, 21-2, led all the way; 5-0 and 9-2 early, 19-15 early in the second quarter, before pitching a pivotal four-minute defensive shutout  right before halftime that gave the defending state champs a 33-24 intermission advantage. Danvers held Whittier scoreless, forcing five Wildcat turnovers in the process, from the 5:30 mark until the 1:33 juncture leading into halftime.  It was 30-15 by the time Whittier, 20-3, broke the scoring drought, and by that time the game was, for all intents and purposes, over.

The Falcons left no doubt how this game would finish in the first 2:30 of the third quarter when they cranked it up at the offensive end, scoring 12 unanswered points in a 1:50 span on successive three-point bombs from sophomore Vinny Clifford (14 points, 4-for-4 from beyond the arc; that’s 11 3s the last two games for the sharpshooting sniper), Nick McKenna (17) and Nick Bates (19 points, 7 rebounds) and a three-point play inside from Dan Connors (13).

These two vital stretches in the game, one defensively, one offensively, typify why the Falcons appear destined to win a second straight Division 3 state title: they can put the killer choke hold on an opponent at both ends of the floor.

This was as solid a two-way performance as the Falcons have played since their state title run a year ago. And with point guard Eric Martin (11 asissts) showing no after-effects at either side of midcourt of the hip flexor/groin strain injury suffered two weeks ago in the Comcast Invitational, the Falcons appear to be functioning at full throttle.

Whittier was a worthy opponent, unlike its two Commonwealth Athletic Conference brethren who got shellacked by the Falcons last week by 38 and 41 points. Whittier was a far better team than the final score indicated, but its inability to hit open shots or finish strong penetrations to the basket (caused in large part by the ferocious manner in which the Falcons contest every field goal attempt), as well as its sloppy ball handling, doomed the Haverhill school from the start.

Now the Falcons await the winner of tonight’s other D-3 North semifinal at Burlington High between 21-0 North Reading, the No. 1 seed out of the Cape Ann League, and perennial D-3 contender Wayland, 18-4, the No. 4 seed. Danvers is the No. 2 seed.

The winner tonight gets Danvers in the D-3 final Saturday at Tsongas Arena in Lowell, time to be announced tomorrow by the MIAA.

Wayland wants another shot at Danvers in the worst way after it squandered a 10-point lead in the last 1:26 of regulation and fell to the Falcons in overtime, 70-67, last March in the D-3 semifinals. Mike Scarfo’s three-pointer at the end of regulation forced the overtime or there would be no D-3 state title to defend currently. Undefeated North Reading wants at the defending champs as well, so tonight’s showdown should be a doozie.

Three more wins and the Falcons repeat as state champeens.

The Falcons now stand as the only Danvers standard bearer in the tournament after Division 1 top seed St. John’s Prep lost an OT heartbreaker at home last Friday to Andover, 62-59. Andover was eliminated last night by Central Catholic.

Danvers resident Mike Kasprzak and his unbeaten Melrose Red Raiders saw their Division 2 state title hopes dashed last night in a North section semifinal by Brighton (remember them?), 65-62, but a fantastic year for Kasprzak and company nonetheless.

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