South Hadley players on the bench with seconds left in the western Mass finals against Greenfield Saturday night in Amherst.
AMHERST — The South Hadley boys basketball team certainly earned its championship Saturday.
The Tigers overcame a stifling Greenfield defense to win their sixth Western Massachusetts Division 2 Tournament championship since 2001. South Hadley made only four field goals in the fourth quarter but held on for a 55-49 victory at Curry Hicks Cage.
“It feels awesome,” senior Evan Marcus said. “It’s the best feeling in the world.”
The championship was the first since 2008 and it touched off a long celebration for the Tigers. It was the eighth title overall since 1972.
“Words can’t explain,” South Hadley junior guard Avon White said. “We’ve come so far as a team. To say the least phenomenal. Phenomenal.”
The second-seeded Tigers (16-7) will play St. Bernard’s at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the DCU Center in Worcester in the state semifinal round. St. Bernard’s beat Gardner 63-49 in the Central Massachusetts Tournament final Saturday.
South Hadley, which is 3-0 all-time against Greenfield in sectional finals, are seeking their first trip to a state championship game.
Winning “is different, and sweeter as you get older and have a beautiful wife and two kids,” Tigers coach Jeff Guiel said. “In all sincerity, it’s the look on the kids faces ... To look at a kid in high school with that absolutely unconditioned joy on their faces is what makes it all.
“And to be hugged and told you’re loved by your players; other than having a baby and meeting the love of your life, there is nothing better and nothing sweeter,” he added.
Top-seeded Greenfield (20-3) gave South Hadley fits throughout the game. Its trapping style pressured the Tigers into numerous turnovers and uncharacteristic mistakes. South Hadley never trailed and was never tied with the Green Wave, but its arms-length lead was in danger for 32 minutes.
“It was like there were six of them (on the court). That’s the way that it felt,” Guiel said. “I told the assistants, and I’m not right all the time, but after watching the film I said that I feared their length and I feared their depth. They had the length to be 6-3, 6-4, but just as athletic as our guys.”
The Tigers led 16-13 late in the second quarter when freshman Griffin Fitzell gave the team a boost with back-to-back 3-pointers. T.J. Fitzell then grabbed a rebound and found his brother, who tossed the ball ahead to White for a fast break and a 24-13 lead.
“Humongous,” White said of Griffin Fitzell’s 3s. “That added fuel to the fire. That got us going. That was a really key part. Him coming off the bench ready as a freshman. I love the kid to death. He’s like a little brother to me.”
But Greenfield did not go away as Tyler Miller and Connor Eckstrom each hit a 3-pointer to pull the Green Wave within 24-19 at halftime.
In the third quarter, South Hadley got a scare when Anthony Bullough twisted his ankle and left for three minutes. With Bullough out, the Tigers pushed their lead to 32-24 behind four fast-break points by White (13 points) and a three-point play by Marcus (12 points). When Bullough returned, Greenfield went on a 4-0 run to pull within 32-28 with 1:11 left.
But Bullough (14 points) sparked a 9-0 run with seven points as South Hadley led 41-28 with 7:15 left in the fourth.
“I went down and felt the pain immediately,” Bullough said. “I knew no matter what, it’s my senior year, I couldn’t let it go away. I just had to get back in there.”
The Tigers went 8 for 11 from the line over the final seven minutes to hold off the Green Wave.
“When the game got close we always harp on mental toughness, coach always harps on it all season long,” Marcus said. “Mental toughness is part of being strong and not folding when a team starts to make a run. When they started to make their runs and pinch the lead, we really stepped up our game and gave them a run right back and held them off.”
Mike Moran can be reached at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @mikemoranDHG.
South Hadley 55, Greenfield 49
White 5-3-13, Marcus 2-8-12, G. Fitzell 2-1-7, T.J. Fitzell 0-0-0, Reed 0-0-0, Flachs 0-1-1, Bullough 6-2-14, Garbacik 1-0-2, Sears 1-0-2, Earle 2-0-4. Totals: 19-15-55
Green Wave (20-3)
Eckstrom 4-1-10, Funari 5-2-13, Hudson 1-0-2, Borden 5-4-14, Miller 4-1-10. Totals: 19-8-49
South Hadley 12 12 14 17—55
Greenfield 11 8 9 21—49
3-pointers: South Hadley 2 (G. Fitzell 2); Greenfield 3 (Eckstrom, Funari, Miller)