Warriors are Freedom champs after throwback win in Melrose

Feb 11, 2019 by

THE WARRIORS stuck together all season and came through with a well-deserved Freedom Championship after a tough road win against rival Melrose. (Donna Larsson Photo)

Published on the February 11, 2019 edition.

By DAN PAWLOWSKI

MELROSE — A Freedom Division title should be earned.

What better way to earn a championship belt than winning a Wakefield-Melrose clash?

The Warriors, holding on to a three-game lead over the Red Raiders, would have still had a good opportunity to win the division even if they lost to Melrose on Friday night, but they made it official after another classic between the two rivals ended in an absolutely earned 49-45 victory for Wakefield.

“It was a good old-fashioned barn burner although there weren’t a lot of points scored; it was very physical,” said Wakefield head coach Brad Simpson. “Overall it was a great team win. It was extra special for the kids to beat Melrose twice and win a divisional championship at the same time.”

Wakefield beat Melrose in their first matchup on Jan. 4, 51-40.

Only this time, the Warriors would have to do it without captain Ryan Marcus who is working his way back from a broken nose sustained during Wakefield’s win over Winchester on Tuesday.

Stepping up in his place was multiple Warriors, none more than senior Billy O’Keefe (15 points, 10 rebounds) who after being held scoreless on 0-for-5 shooting in the first half, exploded for 15 points in the second half, including Wakefield’s last four points of the game to seal it.

With the game tied at 41 and just under three minutes to play, captain Aidan Cusack (10 points) turned a pretty spin move into a reverse layup to give Wakefield the lead. A 3-pointer from Melrose’s Jay Tucci gave the home team a one-point advantage. With a minute left, the Warriors ran a perfect set on a baseline inbound pass as Cusack found an open spot on the weak side block and Quinn Bayers found him for a quick two to regain the lead.

Freshman Holden Symonds had a great game in the post for Melrose scoring a game-high 19 points, but the pressure of the game finally caught up with the big minutes he logged as he went 1-for-5 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter.

With Wakefield up one, O’Keefe took over, getting a big and-one. Wakefield had a 47-45 lead when Symonds went to the line again. O’Keefe ripped down the freshman’s second miss and hit both his shots from the line to officially make it 49-45.

The key to the game? There were several for the Warriors, one of which being the defensive effort of O’Keefe and senior Jack Matuszewski on Symonds and Melrose captain Luka Vlajkovic in the second half. Melrose’s two dominant big men were held to just one bucket between the two of them in the fourth quarter.

“Jack had been sick the last couple of days, we were fortunate he was feeling good,” said Simpson. “He played most of the 3rd filling in for Aidan (Cusack) who got into some foul trouble and Jack along with Billy O’Keefe did a great job of neutralizing Vlajkovic and Symonds in the fourth quarter.”

Melrose was up 13-10 after the first quarter. The Warriors had a hard time with the Melrose zone in the second quarter, scoring just eight points in the frame. Senior Pat Hannigan (11 points) kept Wakefield in the game with two identical corner 3’s on back-to-back possessions. Two free throws from Michael O’Keefe accounted for the only other scoring of the quarter for Wakefield as Symonds and the Red Raiders had the leverage in a defensive tug-of-war, leading 24-18 at the half.

Like they’ve done all season, the Warriors made some great halftime adjustments. Quinn Bayers started to take control of the ball as the point guard and hit a 3 in the third to cut the Melrose lead to 28-24. He followed that up with a strong drive and layup. Coach Simpson was impressed with Bayers’ defense on Melrose captain and point guard Chris Cusolito who was held to six points on the night, as well as his good decision-making as Bayers had just two turnovers in 25 minutes.

Vlajkovic took over in the middle of the third, scoring six points in the quarter and forcing a Wakefield timeout with the score 35-29 and two minutes left in the frame.

“We were trying to get it all back on one possession,” said Simpson. “So during that timeout we told them to play in the moment and let the game evolve. A lot of good things happened after that.”

Later down eight, the Warriors closed the third on a 7-0 run. Billy O’Keefe stopped the scoring drought with two free throws, Matuszewski had a second chance bucket and with 17 seconds left, O’Keefe dribbled the ball at the top of the key and knocked down a hesitation 3 at the buzzer to get the visiting fans going and cutting the Melrose lead to just one heading into the fourth.

As the score suggested, it was Wakefield’s defense that won the fourth as they outscored the home team 13-8 on their way to a Freedom championship.

The win was also big for Wakefield’s shot at a home game in the Div. 2 North tournament. With 11 teams currently in the mix, a number that should jump to 14 or 15, Wakefield will have a great chance at a top five seed if they can win their next two games against Stoneham (tomorrow) and Burlington (Thursday) this week.

Senior Night at the Charbonneau Field House will be this Thursday at 5:30 p.m. with a pregame ceremony starting around 5 p.m.

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