Pope John’s brilliant guard Angel Price-Espada was hobbled by a leg injury so head coach Leo Boucher looked to other players to give his team a boost in the decisive fourth quarter of Monday’s state semifinal at the TD Garden.
Senior forward Michael Thompson and junior guard Mehkhi Collins both answered the call with heroic efforts in the final stanza. Thompson scored 12 of his 14 points, including two clutch free throws, in the second half, while Collins had 14 of his game-high 23 points, as North champion Pope John defeated South champion Mashpee, 70-62, on the famous parquet floor.
The Tigers (22-1) advance to the Division 4 state championship game in Springfield against defending state champion Maynard (22-3).
Espada came out dishing and had seven assists, to go along with nine points (11 overall) in the first half as Pope John took a 32-27 lead into intermission. The Tigers’ dependable inside player, Marques Bouyer, also made an early statement with 10 points in the first half as Pope John led 37-32 at intermission. Bouyer also reigned over Pope John’s control the defensive boards. Luis Velasquez helped out the Tigers’ offensive with six points. Cam Erickson, the Tigers’ sharpshooting junior, had a basket while Connor Kelly was a key contributor off the bench, also netting two points.
Velasquez had two hoops in the third quarter before Thompson went on a mini-tear with three baskets and a key steal with the game tied at 49-49. A basket by Collins gave Pope John a 51-49 lead after three quarters.
Pope John was leading 59-57 when Price-Espada left the game after sustaining a right leg injury. He would return to the game, though clearly not at 100 percent.
Collins connected on a free throw and Collins added a basket to keep Pope John ahead, 64-61. Another Thompson hoop, two free throws by Collins, a steal by Velasquez allowed the Tigers to seal the victory.
“That was a terrific basketball game,” said Boucher. “Mashpee just keeps coming at you, they’re a phenomenal basketball team. They were everything we thought they would be and more.”
Collins was a catalyst in the first quarter for the Pope John offense with eight points. He saved his best for last with the game on the line.
“We got together as one unit and played together and we have so much fight – I’m so proud of my teammates, our coaching staff and Pope John” said Collins. “They passed the reins to me and I did what I had to do. My teammates put me in the best position to what I had to do and score.”
Thompson was equally humble about his clutch effort.
“I have to thank my teammates for putting me in that situation,” said Thompson. “I was struggling a little bit, but they kept giving the ball. Their confidence in me and keeping me motivated is what decided those final layups for me.”
Boucher said Collins and Thompson were difference makers in the game.
“I thought our upperclassmen, our junior [Collins] and our senior [Thompson] stepped up,” said Boucher. “Angel was hurt and the leg was bothering him the whole game, but these kids stepped up. They’ve worked hard to get to where they got to, and they won’t be denied. They’re trying to earn the respect they truly deserve.”
Boucher was asked what it meant for the school to be playing in its first state final.
“It’s pretty exciting,” said Boucher. “For a little school like us, we have about 200 boys – our basketball team is just about everything to us, so it’s pretty cool. We have a great administrators, great kids, and great supporters.
Two of those administrators, Head of School Carl DiMaiti and Principal Thomas Mahoney, a member of the school’s first graduating class, sat courtside Monday and will now join a legion of PJ students and alumni in Springfield in search of the school’s first state basketball title.