Challenges Keep Coming for Unbeaten (6-0) Danvers High Boys Cagers

Lots of good news — and some cautionary tales — to report after the Danvers High boys basketball team survived one huge scare last night before staving off Marblehead, 46-43,  in the DHS field house.

The good news:

  • The 6-0 Falcons, ranked No. 3 this week in the Boston Globe poll, know how to handle adversity, how to come from behind in the final minute, and how to win when getting little or no offense from two of their big scorers, Vinny Clifford and Devan Harris.
  • We learned last night that sophomore Devonn Allen and juniors Rashad Francois and Tre Crittendon are “ready for prime time” contributors.
  • We were reminded that middle man Peter Merry’s value to the team is immeasurable after his 11 point, 10 rebound, five block performance, especially when his fellow frontcourtmen, Clifford and Harris, struggle. He is as valuable to this team’s success as anyone.
  • We were reminded that the Falcons’ suffocating defense will loom large in any low-scoring game, such as last night, when it pitched a second quarter shutout, Marblehead scoring zero points while Danvers scored a quiet 10 and turned a stunning 16-10 first quarter home court deficit into a 20-16 halftime advantage.

We also learned some worrisome things based on last night.

  • There is a way to handcuff Northeastern Conference MVP Harris, displayed two nights after he scored a career-high 35 points in a fast-paced 88-66 victory at Saugus. The Sachems rattled Danvers by zone pressing, which earned them a 41-41 tie before they got routed in the second half, Harris playing a major role in the win. But last night Marblehead (3-4) coach Mike Giardi used a most effective 2-3 clogging zone in which the Danvers perimeter men had all kinds of difficulty getting the ball inside to Merry or Harris. Merry kept banging the boards and got some great results, while Harris scored on a 10-foot jumper midway through the first quarter for a 10-10 tie and scored the team’s last points of the second quarter as well on a driving layup. But that was it for the Charkles Barkley-esque Harris, who was saddled with foul trouble for much of the night was had problems getting to the boards. NEC coaches were taking note I am sure. But watch him return to his old, masterful ways at both ends of the floor, hopefully, tomorrow night.
  • The Danvers defense had what almost became a deadly spell from midway through the fourth, when the Magicians ran off nine straight points for a 43-41 lead with 43 seconds remaining. Four of those points came on layups, two more on a dunk. Very uncharacteristic of the Falcons. That porous stretch surely will be discussed at practice today.
  • There is some concern as to the condition of sharpshooter Clifford’s right knee, the one operated on in September 2013 which forced him to sit out all of last season; an amazing 20-3 campaign without the team’s lone returning starter. The senior captain tweaked it in the third quarter at Saugus and sat out the fourth quarter. Coach John Walsh started Mike Nestor in Clifford’s place against Marblehead, but Clifford came in after 2:15 had elapsed, missed a three-pointer, canned a three, then sat out much of the second quarter. He came in off the bench again in the third quarter, played several minutes, then started the fourth quarter but was ineffective offensively. He came through big time, however, with 15.3 seconds left when he was fouled before the Falcons could inbounds the ball against the Magicians’ full court pressure and sank two huge foul shots to give Danvers a 46-43 lead. Marblehead came down and got off two excellent three-point looks, the first of which was off the mark from the right corner, but the second, from the left wing by Griffin Butterfield, was dead on but hit the back of the rim and bounced out as the final horn sounded. It would appear Clifford and Walsh will have to deal with the wounded knee one day at a time throughout the season. It appears it is a condition Clifford will adjust and copoe with, with discomfort, from here. He wore last night an additional wrap around the knee under the brace he wears in practices and games. Bottom line: he can play through the pain. It is believed that the knee will hold up just fine. The pain is another issue.
  • Should the Falcons, coming off a spectacular 2013-14 season and projected as one of the top teams in the state and the best team in the Northeastern Conference, be struggling against mediocre teams like Saugus and Marblehead? This was Game 2 in three days after a two-week layoff. No excuse there. From this vantage point the NEC competition has improved this season. The Falcons didn’t have to wait to host Salem on January 16 and play at Lynn English on January 27 to find that out. Those may be the other two top teams in the NEC, but it’s clear other programs have improved vastly since last year. The Falcons get another good test at home Friday night against Lynn Classical.

Equally important on a positive vein from last night, sophomore Allen and juniors Francois and Crittendon showed they can pick up the slack come crunch time. In effect, any of the tesam’s first seven can win the game offensively. Allen, after a sub-par performance at Saugus, was Mr. Clutch in the fourth quarter, scoring his team’s first seven points. First he hit a three from atop the key, then went coast to coast after stealing an inbounds pass, his layup giving the Falcons a 36-32 lead with 5:05 left, Two foul shots  made it 38-34.

The Falcons then did not score from the 4:10 (left) mark until Francois, after missing his two previous three-point bids, swished a left baseline trey with 35 seconds left for a 44-43 less. Angel Perez missed a short jumper off the glass at the other end, Clifford got fouled and made tewo free throws, Marblehead missed their two three-point attempted at the other end and the Falcons had survived. This was the first time this year the Falcons were on the ropes in the last minute with a clear chance to lose, but they responded like the champs they are.

Crittendon, the first guard off the bench, delivered more steady floor play and sank the three-pointer that gave the Falcons their biggest lead of the night at 41-34. Tre figures to be a major factor from this point forward; ditto Nestor as the first front court player off the bench if he can get some confidence in his offensive play.

The adventure continues Friday night, 7 p.m., versus Lynn Classical.



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