Danvers High Boys’ Cagers Capture Epic 79-78 Victory at Lynn English; Justify No. 1 Spot in Boston Globe Rankings

To have attended last night’s historic, pulsating, heart-stopping, nerve-wracking, glorious 79-78 Danvers High boys’ basketball victory at Lynn English was to have been a part of arguably the greatest single-game performance by a Danvers High boys’ team — ever.

That does not mean we wish to take anything away from the two unforgettable Division 3 North wins, the two Division 3 state semifinal triumphs in TD Garden nor the two state championship wins in Worcester.

But…to have been in full view of what this amazing, amazing team achieved last night under extremely difficult conditions — on the road for the third straight game in as many days against a reputable  foe, in this case a Division 1 state championship contender and repeat Northeastern Conference Large Division champ —  was to have been a part of a sporting event anyone in attendance, especially as a Danvers supporter, will never forget.

I’ve seen a zillion bone-crunching, fast-paced barn burners over the years, from the high school level to the NBA Championship round (thanks to covering five NBA finals with the Celtics), all of which came down to the final shot in the final second.

But nothing I have witnessed prepared me for the athleticism, clutch shooting, momentum swings and pressure-packed play I watched last night.

In the end, the “Falcons’ Fab Five”  — that has a nice ring to it —  was able to survive several offensive assaults from the home team, which was coming off a stunning loss to cross-town rival Lynn Classsical, and earn their unprecedented 20th victory of the year without a loss.

The Falcons, led by the unflappable genius of baby-faced coach John Walsh, eek to close out the regular season 21-0 — and to retain the first-ever No. 1 ranking in the Boston Globe Top 20 received just hours before the Lynn English showdown — this afternoon with a 12:30 non-league visit to 7-7 Rockland.  That will mean two games in less than 24 hours and four games in 72 hours. But expect the Falcons to come out with fire in their eyes once again, as they did in stopping Bishop Feehan Monday at Woburn, 60-56, Malden Catholic Tuesday at Newton North, 79-59, to win the Comcast Arbella Division 2 Invitational, and outlasting Lynn English night.

Anyone reading this will probably already know in detail, most important Devan Harris’s free throw with no time remaining that won the game, thanks to the “big game” coverage provided last night’s game by The Boston Herald, Boston Globe, Daily Item of Lynn, Salem News and ESPN/Boston, how this masterpiece of a high school contest (despite the 29 total turnovers combined, 14 for Lynn,  and seemingly easy scoring opportunities that were missed) evolved. But here are a few snippets.

  • Facing without question the best team they have played all season, the Falcons fell behind at the outset by 6-1 and 11-4 counts, as English’s zone press defense, red-hot shooting (5-for-5 to start, 3 of them three-pointers) and obvious advantage in athleticism and speed had the visitors reeling. The Falcons committed turnovers on their first three possessions, two of which occurred before they got the ball to halfcourt, four in the first two minutes.
  • But senior shooting forward nonpareil Vinny Clifford, on as spectacular a three-point shooting hot streak as you can have (17-for-32 the last 3 games, 8-for-14 on this evening) got Danvers untracked offensively with successive treys, three for the quarter and a 16-foot two-pointer for good measure, and the Falcons clawed back to within 23-20 at the end of the quarter.
  • English (17-4 and a high seed when the Division 1 North pairings come out this weekend) then went on another spree and had the Falcons on the ropes yet again in the second quarter at 35-26. But super sensational sophomore point guard Devonn Allen, the MVP of the Comcast-Arbella tourney and probably the co-No. 2 star last night with mates Peter Merry (16 points10 rebounds, 4 blocks), Harris (15 points, 9 rebounds) and sensational sixth man Rashad Francois (11 points, 5 rebounds), behind Clifford and his career-high 28 points (8 boards), answered the challenge. Allen hit a 16-foot swisher. Francois added a floater in the lane, a cut-in-the-lane layup and two foul shots, Harris put in a rebound and Allen provided a delicious driving scoop lay-up, all of which drew the Falcons within 41-38 at intermission. The fans only had 10 minutes,  to catch their breaths and cool down, but they might have welcomed enough time to run outside and dunk their heads in one of the available mammoth snow piles.
  • Keep in mind the “Fab Five,” cheered on in deafening manner by the “Falcon Fanatics” seated right behind their bench, were going the entire game, with rare mini-brief substitutions from Mike Nestor and Tre Cittendon, with a frighteningly frantic up-and-down-the-floor pace. Not exactly what they have been accustomed to, such as in their toughest NEC games to date (39-37 over Salem, 46-43 and 53-47 over Marblehead). Still, they took control of the game in the third quarter. Powered by four Clifford rainbow three-point bombs from the corner, Danvers hit eight of its first 11 shots and jumped out to a 64-52 less, their loyal followers going delirious.
  • But as anyone on board anticipated, English responded with a rush that tied the score at 66 just as Harris got hit with his fourth personal foul with 6:19 left. But the Falcons have handled foul trouble and foul-outs with masterful aplomb in the most dramatic of situations and this was no exception. Harris never did foul out,
  • The game remained nip and tuck the rest of the way, with several excellent Falcon field goal bids hitting the back of the rim until Clifford — it’s time to call him Mr. Clutch — hit his eighth and final three-bagger to make it 76-73 with 1:22 showing, then cashed a layup on a nifty pass from Francois for a 78-75 cushion with 49 seconds left.
  • It was 78-77 when Harris missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 14.9 seconds remaining, but English’s Stevie Collins made only his second of two foul shots with 5.4 ticks remaining at the other end after a penetration down the lane (and a controversial foul call).

That set the stage for Harris’s redemption, though he was vital to this victory and has been critical in the Falcons’ overwhelming success last year and this since coming to town from Hingham.  The Falcons had to go the full length of the court. When Harris got the pass near mid court — if my memory serves me (writer’s remorse) —  the ever-confident Harris took two dribbles and fired away from 27 feet in front of the Danvers bench, the ball was partially deflected and many thought it meant overtime. But no, in deflecting the shot the Lynn defender had struck Harris’s arm. That meant a three-shot foul with no time remaining. Devan made the first (after going 0-for-4 from the line prior) and the Falcons had secured one of the greatest wins in the program’s history.

Walsh’s explanation after the game for his team’s ability to raise its game to new levels this week? “They’re playing harder and harder. They’ve got the stamina to handle the fast pace, any pace. They know how to get through tough times. They’re confident they can handle any situation, They believe in each other.”

It is difficult for this observer to put this win in proper perspective. The enormity of its meaning is obvious. The heart of the five primary players can never be overstated. Their endurance, their nerves, their ability to make so many huge plays — all five of them based on the roles each must play. And Walsh continues to marvel with his handling of this team in general and his front liners in particular.

Count your blessings, Falcon fans. Remarkably, the team has not had to deal with a single major injury through 20 games; nothing short of unbelievable a year after the team lost its only returning starter to a summer knee injury (see below).

Now, a player-by-player rundown:

  • Vinny Clifford — What a story this young man has written after being forced to suffer through the entire 2013-14 Cinderella season (20-3, NEC Small and NEC overall titles, Div. 2 North final loser to New Mission) sitting on the bench in street clothes after needing surgery for his ACL in September of 2013. What mental agony he must have gone through. What a difference he could have made if able. So he served as the best teammate and bench leader he could. And he waited and waited for the 2014-15 season. He nicked the surgical knee during the summer but recovered quickly. He returned to action last December gradually, needing to build up resistance to discomfort in his injured, heavily-braced knee. He has had countless strong all-around games, several superb shooting games, without missing a single game, though in the early schedule he got more rest than he wanted, but that was part of Walsh’s plan to bring him along at a safe pace. When Clifford was held by Marblehead last Thursday in Marblehead to an 0-for-5 shooting night, his worst of the season, there were concerns. But neither Clifford nor his mates nor his coach had any. And with good reason. In what loomed on paper as the three toughest games of the regulars season, Clifford has been an NBA-ish 17-for-32 from three-point land, many of his swishes coming from several feet beyond the arc. Vinny is simply playing his best all-around basketball of the season right now, as has been evidenced in his ability to help Allen primarily, but Francois and Frittendon too, in bringing the ball up against relentless defensive pressure. He has also upticked his rebounding and defending to an all-star level. But his ICBM-like marksmanship has played the most impactful role in the team’s jacking up its game to celestial levels these last three games. His two early bombs last night seemed to get his teammates going after a scary start.
  • Devonn Allen — Coach Walsh had every confidence that Allen would be a terrific point man for his team this winter, especially after Allen’s sparkling summer play alongside Merry, Harris and Merry on the AAU Boston Warriors squad. But the young man has raised his game to stratospheric levels the last few weeks, highlighted by his play in these last four games. His MVP award in the Comcast/Arbella tourney is testament to all that. His play against Bishop Feehan and Lynn English this week has been critical to his team’s victories. As Walsh has noted after both victories, Allen’s tremendous floor play, especially against English’s stifling man and zone-press defenses, made those wins possible. If Devonn cracks, the Falcons lose, period. He does not crack. Allen had a few turnovers, but everyone else on the team did as well (16 total). Unavoidable against a team with such quick feet and exceptional athleticism. Devonn beast that pressure singlehandedly countless times. And don’t forget that Devonn is a threat to cash in his jumper (he’s been uncanny with his threes) or drive to the rim every time down the floor.
  • Peter Merry — The 6-10 senior center had enjoyed a solid regular season, topped by his near-perfect 36-point offensive showing against a good Lynn Classical unit that shocked English last week. But his ferocious defensive and rebounding play this week has taken his game to another level of performance needed, or the Falcons probably lose to Feehan and English. He quietly does the dirty work at both ends of the floor, getting little compassion from the referees on offense while showing his dominating influence at the defensive end. Moreover, his re-discovered offensive impact this week has been welcomed by all.
  • Devan Harris — Where would the Falcons be without this Charles Barkley-esque figure who can do everything well and is all but unstoppable when he gets the ball in the low post (helped in no small part by the attention teams must give the aforementioned Mr. Merry on the other side of the lane)? NEC MVP and Salem News Player of the Year in 2013-14, Harris has been no less successful this year, but his impact may not be measured quite as highly this year because of Merry’s improvement from a year ago and Clifford’s return. But make no mistake, the 6-4 power forward has had a fantastic season, topped by last night’s winning free throw with no time left at English.  His three-point accuracy has added yet another three-point dimension to go along with Clifford, next option Allen and Francois. Because of the three-point talent this quartet possesses, the Falcons are liable one night soon to win a game by taking more threes than twos. The team’s ability to take so many threes is enhanced by the devastating 1-2 inside game provided by Harris and Merry. Devan’s uncanny rebounding ability and underrated defense (not appreciated by the whistle tooters at all this season) also weigh heavily in Danvers’ 20-0 record.
  • Rashad Francois — The junior flash with the best quickness and speed on the floor along with Allen has enjoyed several heroic games this season, but none to compare with his play against Malden Catholic and English in his frequently-created sixth man role. He savored undoubtedly his finest two-way game under pressure conditions last night. He made his presence felt in every phase of his game: rebounding, shooting outside and penetration, passing that set up layups and wide open successful threes, ball-handling, defense and rebounding. When Rashad gets into his desired rhythm, as was the case last night in what was a brutally up-tempo game, he thrives.

Off-guard/small forward starter Mike Nestor and backup guard Tre Crtittendon have had their moments, especially in what they delivered against Bishop Feehan after Merry and Harris fouled out. They will continue to contribute, hopefully with their best games ahead of them as tournament time approaches.

Now, a few more comments on John Walsh. Like Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick have often said, “You are what your record says you are, no matter what your personnel.” Well, there can be no mistake that Walsh has been the perfect coach for this group and the group he guided the three years prior, there second and third editions of which won Division 3 state titles. He’s only in his mid-30s, with five years of varsity assistant coaching experience under his belt before coming to Danvers. Today he is considered one of the top high school coaches in the state and one being eyed by virtually every Division 1 and 2 school that might be looking for a new coach sooner rather than later.

For much of the first 15 games or so, the Falcons seemed to play to the level of — or only slightly above the level, thankfully — of the team they were playing.  This frustrated the coaching staff. Walsh never conceded this observation, but it must have driven him loco, trying to figure out what was needed to get the “Fab Five” to all play with complete devotion and energy. Of course, team insiders might consider this perspective loco since the team kept winning every single game. No matter. They finally have played these last three games like state champions, even with a few performance warts showing.

After finishing an historic 21-0 with the expected win today at Rockland, the Falcons will get some time off before hosting one or two Division 2 North games. They will be seeded No. 1, with a rematch with New Mission a strong possibility. After today’s game, let the magical ride of this superb season continue with all arrows pointed to the state final in Worcester March 14.

Lastly, a few factoids regards the greatest winning era by a major boys’ sports team in DHS history.

  • 21-0 this year, 41-3 the last two years, 63-5 the last three years, 84-9 the last four years, tournament games included.
  • Four straight NEC Small titles
  • Four straight NEC Overall (mythical) titles as the team with the best NEC record in either Small or Large
  • Two MIAA Division 3 states titles 2012, 2013, Division 2 North finalist 2014
  • The first No. 1 ranking in the Boston Globe’s Top 20 (published February 18, 2015), within five Division 1 teams ranked two through six.

Now catch your breath and get ready for February/March Madness.

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