Less than a minute remained on the clock in the fourth quarter as Malik James headed to the bench where he was greeted by hugs and smiles from his teammates and coaches.
Last year's trip to the Division 2 state championship didn't end as planned for Brighton, but Saturday's game at the DCU Center was much different for the Bengals, who won their first state title in school history with a 59-41 triumph over South Hadley.
After a thrilling victory over Scituate in the semifinals, coach Hugh Coleman stressed the importance of getting off to a quick start and keeping the momentum down the stretch. When the Bengals play with a sense of urgency they are one of the toughest teams in the state to keep up with, and they had that motivation from the opening tip on Saturday.
Senior guard Nate Hogan hit a 3-pointer for Brighton's first points of the game and the Bengals never looked back. Brighton was up 19-10 after the opening eight minutes, finishing the quarter on a 7-0 run.
With the memories of last year's loss to Mahar in the state title game lingering in the back of his mind, James woke up at 9 a.m. and went to a gym down the street to shoot around and run some drills with his brother to get him prepared.
“I knew we weren't going to get on the floor early enough because of all the games,” James explained. “I took it into consideration just to go work out so I could be on and contribute to my team.”
Despite James's dominant second quarter, South Hadley's Cameron Earle (16 points) helped keep the game close as he chipped away with 11 points, including two 3-pointers, in the first half.
Brighton was ahead 32-22 at the half and kept the energy flowing in the third, holding the Tigers scoreless for over 2 minutes, part of a 12-2 stretch for the Bengals.
The Tigers fought to keep their hopes alive, but Nick Simpson's 7 fourth-quarter points, five of which came from the free throw line, helped keep the Bengals in control.
“Missed free throws add up at the end so I didn't want to make free throws be the reason we lost,” explained Simpson, who finished 9 of 11 from the line. “It got to the point where I wasn't making my outside shots so I just put it in my head that if I wasn't hitting those shots, I'll go to the foul line and make all my foul shots.”
Not only is this the first year Brighton won a state title, it is also the first time they've won the city championship. And when the team reflects on its successful season, the city tournament will stand out as the defining moment which jumpstarted their confidence and led them to the ultimate prize.
“It's a part of history,” affirmed Hugh Coleman. “The coaches are so proud that this is the first city and state title for Brighton high school in 171 years. That is amazing for me.
“It means so much and we feel honored to be the first to bring that home, and that's something that obviously no one will be able to take away from us,” he added. “We can always walk into that gym and be like we were the first.”
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