Smith Academy High School boys basketball team cheers after winning the Western Massachusetts Division 3 basketball final against St. Joseph at UMass on Saturday, March 9, 2013. SARAH CROSBY
AMHERST — The celebration was 20 years in the making as the Smith Academy boys basketball team accomplished its goal of bringing home a Western Massachusetts Division 3 Tournament championship Saturday.
The fourth-seeded Falcons made clutch plays on both ends of the court in the closing minutes to pull out a 66-63 victory over defending champion and No. 6 seed St. Joseph at Curry Hicks Cage.
“It feels great. Twenty years is a long time,” Smith senior Mat Sulda said. “Smith Academy is known for great athletics even though we’re a small school. It feels good for basketball to get a western Mass. championship, especially boys, since it’s been 20 years. It’s an awesome feeling to be a part of it.”
The championship came on the 20th and 30th anniversaries of previous championships for the Falcons. Thirty years ago Smith also beat St. Joseph. This is the program’s seventh sectional title since the MIAA split its postseason tournament into divisions in 1972.
“All year we just wanted to work hard,” junior Keith Natale said. “We focused a lot of our play on heart, loose balls, rebounds. We were able to do that today to come out on top.”
Smith Academy (21-3) will play Littleton (23-1) in the state semifinals at 4:15 p.m. Tuesday at the DCU Center in Worcester. Littleton defeated Hopedale 74-64 in the Central Massachusetts Division 3 final Saturday.
“It’s unbelievable. I can’t even describe it,” junior guard Derek McMahon said. “I got back to the locker room and I just sat there with all my teammates. We couldn’t put words to it.”
Sulda led Smith with 19 points, but it was Natale (18 points) and David Longstreeth (13 points) who provided key baskets throughout.
“Our main option is Sulda but if that is being shut down we have the confidence and the kids have the confidence to go to somebody else and knock down shots,” Smith coach Matt Zerneri said. “We were able to knock them down today.”
The Crusaders (14-9), who averaged close to 70 points per game on the season, were held to three field goals in the final 6 minutes, 30 seconds of the game.
“St. Joseph’s is a good offensive team but a good defense can beat a great offense,” said Sulda, who team had the top-ranked defense in Division 3 this season.
The game was close with five ties and 10 lead changes. The Falcons trailed for most of the game until Natale blocked Lavante Wiggins with under six minutes left in the fourth quarter. Seaver Rickert grabbed the rebound and found McMahon in transition.
McMahon scored with a nifty lefty layup to give Smith a 54-53 lead with 5:31 left. It was the Falcons’ first lead since 9-8 late in the first.
“Basketball’s a game of runs,” Sulda said. “It’s all about defense when you’re up and it’s all about defense when you’re down.”
The Crusaders tried to answer but Michael Carpenter was forced into a tough shot. Rickert grabbed the board and was fouled. St. Joseph called a timeout before Sulda drilled a 3-pointer to give Smith a 57-53 lead with 3:50 left.
The Crusaders came back and pulled within 57-56 on a 3-pointer by Taverick Roberson. Natale answered inside, but St. Joseph scored five straight to take a 61-59 lead.
The Falcons called a timeout with two minutes left to regroup defensively.
“I’ve been playing varsity sports since ninth grade for soccer and basketball,” Rickert said. “I’ve played in a lot of tournament games and I think my senior experience kicked in and the fact that I wasn’t overwhelmed and maintained playing it like a regular game, I think they helped on defense.”
With McMahon and Sulda defended, Natale, Rickert and Longstreeth worked the ball inside and out on the left wing. Longstreeth found space and drilled his third 3 to give Smith a 62-61 lead with 1:48 lead.
“A lot of games that happens where those two are covered,” Longstreeth said. “We have to do our best to get open and get some shots in.”
Needing a defensive stop, McMahon picked Roberson clean and raced in for the layup and a three point edge.
“The shot clock was winding down and I knew he had to make a play,” McMahon said. “I figured he was going to try to get something to the hole. He’s a crafty player. He was going right a lot in the game so I played him to the right and fortunately enough I picked it.”
Wiggins scored inside with 42 seconds left to pull the Crusaders within 64-63, but Natale hit a heavily defended jumper at the free-throw line to put the Falcons ahead 66-63 with 20 seconds left.
Both teams called timeout in the closing seconds.
“I love that feeling of playing as hard as you can knowing that within four seconds you could have a Western Mass. title,” Sulda said. “We just wanted to ‘D’ up as hard as we could.”
St. Joseph inbounded the ball along the sideline with 4.9 seconds left. McMahon fouled Jon Bianchi with 3.4 left outside the 3-point line and before the senior took a shot. With a second left, Carpenter’s leaning 3 was off the mark.
“It’s unbelievable,” Longstreeth said. “I’ve never felt anything like this. To do it as a sophomore, I hope I can do it in future years.”
Mike Moran can be reached at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @mikemoranDHG.
Smith Academy 66, St. Joseph 63
Carpenter 7-0-19, Bianchi 1-0-3, Begrowicz 1-2-5, Roberson 8-1-19, Neary 3-0-6, Wiggins 3-1-7, Kelly 2-0-4. Totals: 25-4-63
Smiarowski 0-2-2, McMahon 4-0-8, Rickert 1-1-3, Longstreeth 5-0-13, Natale 9-0-18, Sulda 6-3-19, Halloran 1-0-3. Totals: 26-6-66
3-pointers: St. Joseph 9 (Carpenter 5, Bianchi, Roberson 2, Begrowicz) Smith Academy 8 (Longstreeth 3, Sulda 4, Halloran)