To most Massachusetts high school basketball teams, a 19-point deficit against one of the state’s premier offensive powers, Cathedral, would be deflating, if not downright insurmountable.
To the defending Division 4 champion St. Mary’s Spartans, it was simply another obstacle on the road back to Springfield.
St. Mary’s rode a stunning 44-16 run into the fourth quarter, then fended off the indefatigable Panthers for a 74-68 victory in the D4 state semifinals on Wednesday evening at the Woburn High gym.
“I’m tired of hearing people tell me that we’re Division 4,” said St. Mary’s coach David Brown. “If you look at our schedule, we played one of the toughest schedules in the state. We faced the iron all year long that got us ready for this game.”
The Spartans (19-5) will face Maynard, whom they defeated, 66-64, in another furious comeback on Feb. 10, in Saturday’s state final at 5:45 p.m. at Springfield College.
“We were down eight points to Maynard with 45 seconds left and we came back and won,” said Brown. “That gave the kids the confidence to come back [from being] down 14 at the half. There was no quit in these kids.”
Trailing 36-22 at the half, St. Mary’s came out of the locker room firing on offense while boasting an aggressive, trap-heavy, full-court press.
Numerous Spartans caught fire, with guard Jalen Echevarria (31 points) leading the barrage. An Echevarria 3-pointer, one of five he hit on the evening, gave St. Mary’s a 42-40 lead (its first since 2-0) with less than four minutes remaining in the third.
“It’s amazing,” said the 5-foot-6-inch sophomore. “We came together as a team at halftime and brought it together and said, ‘We’re not losing this game.’ We all stuck together and played through it.”
“It” was a dynamic offensive Cathedral attack led by junior guard Khalil Blair (20 points) and senior guard Calvin Cheek (14 rebounds).
While the Panthers (18-5) possessed the manpower, St. Mary’s appeared hungrier following the break, forcing turnovers while switching between a 2-3 zone and man-to-man defense.
“We came out in the second half flat and they came out with more energy than us and made a run,” said Cathedral coach Larry Merritt. “We weren’t aggressive against their press. When we started to attack, the game had already changed momentum.”
Eight straight points from senior guard Jonathan Mercado and two Echevarria free throws to begin the fourth gave the Spartans a 58-49 lead, its largest of the evening.
True to form, Cathedral clawed back, pulling within 67-66 on an old-fashioned three-point play courtesy of Blair with 30 seconds remaining.
A pair of free throws by Echevarria gave the Spartans a 3-point cushion, and when the Panthers needed it most, they couldn’t find anything from behind the arc, settling for a Victor Owens layup with less than five seconds to play.
Two more Echevarria freebies, followed by a Mercado steal and celebratory buzzer-beating 3-pointer iced the incredible Spartan comeback.
Junior forward Stephen Fama added 14 points and was a key factor on the glass, swiping nine rebounds.
“I can’t even describe this moment,” Echevarria said. “We’re going to Springfield for the state championship again. It’s crazy.”