The defending state Division 2 champion Danvers High Falcons have been winning games this season — 17 coming into Wednesday night’s Division 2 North tournament opener against a surging Melrose squad — and nearly winning four others that ended up being tight losses — because of a dogged, thrashing, merciless, clawing defense. A defense that usually led to the opponent committing on average twice as many turnovers as the Falcons (with one notable exception).
So no wonder it was that attacking, strength-sapping, ball-stealing defense that bailed the Falcons out in a near-capacity DHS field house and resulted in a 49-40 Danvers victory, their 30th straight homecourt win spanning three years.
“Our players are so tough, so determined and play so hard, that we know our defense normally will make good things happen for us,” Danvers coach John Walsh said after the Falcons converted a 22-10 deficit with two minutes left in the second quarter into a 37-30 advantage after three sessions.
At 39-30, 19 seconds into the final quarter, this one looked like a lock. But shoddy shooting, as had been the case in the early going, allowed Melrose (12-9), winners of five straight and seven of eight entering the fray, to close within 41-40 with 3:44 left. But that’s where the Red Raiders’ offense was topped dead in its tracks. Tre Crittendon’s floater in the lane was Danvers’ final bucket making it 41-38 with four minutes left until Mike Nestor, a beast defensively and on the boards once again, laid the ball in with 13 seconds left to close out the scoring.
The numbers defy the observer to comprehend how the Falcons, 18-4, 23-2 in tourney action in the John Walsh Era, won this game.
First Quarter: Falcons shoot 1-13 from floor, 0-9 in three-pointers, and do not force a Melrose turnover until 6:05 has elapsed, and are lucky to trail only 12-4 at the horn. One key: by the end of the quarter, Melrose has committed five turnovers to Danvers’ 2, or it might be a 12- or 14-point deficit rather than an eight-pointer.
Second quarter: Falcons trail 22-10 with 1:55 left in the half, but ol’ reliable Justin Roberto sinks a three coming off the bench, Kieran Moriarty scores two on a put-back and Rashad Francois cans his first three with 10 seconds left after missing his first four three-point attempts. Amazingly, the local forces trail by only 24-18 and a strong buzz filled the building, interpreted as a sense that Danvers would take control after halftime.
And they did, temporarily. The Falcons delivered on five of nine three-point fires in the third quarter, powered by three bombs in a row by Devonn Allen, shot 6-for-11 overall for the stanza and led by 37-30 with eight minutes left. In the process, Melrose committed eight turnovers in the quarter and went scoreless for 5:20.
This should have been put-away time for the five-time Northeastern Conference Division champs, but at 39-30 they missed four consecutive threes and allowed Melrose, coached by Danvers resident Mike Kasprzak, to run off eight straight to draw within 39-38. Crittendown made a critical floater in the lane (41-38) and Melrose’s Avery Davis (8) drove to the bucket (41-40) and it was anyone’s game with 3:44 left. But Melrose never scored again.
From this juncture there occurred a comedy of misplays on the part of both teams, but Danvers’ universally feared defense came up with several big plays,starting with an Allen steal that led to, at the other end, a questionable fifth foul call on MHS super penetrator T’Mahri Mercer (6 assists). It was either Allen travel, Allen losing ball out of bounds or Mercer foul, and the official called the fifth foul.
“Big break for us, because the call could have gone either way, but it was all set up by a fabulous play by Devonn; the perfect example of how vital are the individual and team efforts we get on defense,” said Walsh.
It was still up for grabs, but the Falcons made virtually all the big plays, mainly defensively, meaning four Melrose turnovers in the last 2:50, while Danvers missed several shots but three foul shots from Allen and two from Nestor with 27 seconds left to salt the game away.
Fourth quarter: 2-11 overall, 0-7 in threes. For the game: 8-34 on threes, 14-for-50 overall.
Final turnover tally: Melrose 24, Danvers 8.
“The offensive statistics weren’t good, but they were all, for the most part, good shots. Just have to make more,” Walsh said matter-of-factly. “Sure we live and die some games by our shooting, but our defense has bailed us out many a time and tonight was another example of it. The kids know when they play so hard, they’re usually rewarded, like tonight.”
Allen (17, 4 threes) and Francois (112, 3 threes) led Danvers in scoring. But all seven who played made big plays, including sixth man Tahg Coakley, whose value can never be overestimated.
How they pulled this one out defies belief in some respects, but when you’ve got one of the most productive defenses in Massachusetts high school basketball, even with your biggest man 6-foot, 1 inch in height, anything is possible. Exhibit A: Danvers 49, Melrose 40.
Next up: Brighton, whom the Falcons beat last year, 65-58, in the Div. 2 North semifinal at Woburn. This time it’s the quarterfinals at DHS Saturday at 4 p.m.