NORTH ATTLEBORO, Mass. – The defensive game plan for the North Attleboro boys basketball team was clear and concise: try and stop Amari Brown.
Short of the kitchen sink, the Rocketeers threw everything — and nearly everyone — at trying to stop the senior guard. The plan worked enough for the hosts, who made just enough plays down the stretch on the offensive end to earn a 48-43 win over Oliver Ames, handing the Tigers their first loss of the season.
“Amari is one of the best players in the league, he’s tremendously dangerous in transition, even on made baskets and he’s able to score before your defense is set,” said North Attleboro head coach Sean Mulkerrins. “And then even in the half court he’s so quick, he can make the three, and the element of his game that gets overlooked is he’s so strong, even at whatever he’s at height-wise, he’s able to get guys in the box and score. Our game plan was pretty straight forward, we wanted to build a wall and really pack it in around him. And we had to get back on transition defense and rebound because OA does a great job crashing.
Brown, one of the top players in the Hockomock League and one of the leading scorers this season, accounted for over half of the Tigers’ points (24) in the first meeting between Oliver Ames and North Attleboro, a win for the former back at the start of January.
In order to prevent an encore performance, North Attleboro sprinted back on defense to prevent transition opportunities, brought double teams to contest three-point looks, and built a “Big Red” wall with up to three or four players in the way on the defensive end to try and prevent one of the most dynamic guards in the league for getting to the rim.
Oliver Ames’ defense was up to the task as well, holding the hosts to just seven points in the second quarter and 17 total first half points. Both teams started to pick it up offensively in the third and North’s offense had just enough of a run in the final quarter to create enough separation to hold on.
“I thought out guys were focused defensively and that was the difference,” Mulkerrins said, holding the visitors to just three made three-pointers and forcing the Tigers into 15 turnovers. “We definitely weren’t in cruise control on offense but I felt like our defense was so solid that our offense would figure it out and we have a lot of high IQ guys that will make plays for us. And we made just enough of them to get the win.”
North Attleboro nearly matched its first half offensive output in the third quarter, turning a one-point deficit through 16 minutes of action into a three-point edge going into the final frame.
Gavin Wells, one of eight Rocketeers to hit a field goal, opened the quarter with a corner three, and senior Jason Rodriguez drove hard to the rim for a layup and then got out in transition, resulting in two free throws and a 38-32 lead two minutes into the fourth.
Brown (eight points) hit a free throw to cut the deficit to five but North Attleboro senior George Ladd (19 points, 10 rebounds, four assists) came back with back-to-back field goals to give the hosts their largest lead, 42-33, and forced an OA timeout with 4:41 to play.
Different faces stepped up for OA as the Tigers grinded their way back into the game. Jake Grimaldi came off the bench for two in the post, Brown hit another free throw, and Drew Nickla added two more from the line to make it 42-38 with three minutes left.
With under a minute to play, Drew Baxter (13 points) earned a trip to the line and sank both chances and Oliver Ames’ full court resulted in a traveling call to get the ball back. Will Whiteside got an open look from straight away and drained it and what was once a nine-point lead shrunk to just one, 44-43, with 40.4 seconds to play.
“That’s not a lot of difference between that game and what we’ve been doing all year,” said OA head coach Don Byron. “We’ve managed to be on the right side of the games before this but they’ve all been around this. It wasn’t that much out of character. I think sometimes the thought of a big game, doesn’t necessarily get you nervous but you get caught standing around waiting for something to happen. I think we did a lot of that early on. Defensively we were still pretty good, put ourselves in a position to win.”
The Tigers were whistled for an off ball foul in the post and Ladd sank both attempts of his one-and-one from the line with 27.5 to go. OA launched two threes to try and tie the game but couldn’t convert and Ladd came down with the second miss, went to the line again, and iced the game with two more free throws.
“I never felt like the game got away from us, OA’s defense is so solid, they are bumping cutters, and so much of our offense is dictated by moving the ball, moving people, moving defenders, and they were doing such a good job grabbing and holding, matching wanting what we wanted to do,” Mulkerrins said. “We never got really going offensively but I had faith we could make plays down the stretch.”
North got off to a strong start with Edan Kelley hitting his first shot in his first game back and Ladd going for six straight and an 8-0 lead. OA responded with strong defense, forcing Rocketeer turnovers into layups for Whiteside and Brown while Trey Buggs added a three to get within three, 10-7, after a quarter.
The Tigers’ strong defense continued into the second quarter, limiting the hosts to seven points on 3-for-11 shooting from the field with four turnovers. That gave the visitors enough of a chance to claw their way through North’s tough defense. Baxter hit an early three and then drove to the basket for two, Jaden Krowski cut to the basket to beat the shot clock, and Nickla scored the final four points of the quarter as OA staked an 18-17 halftime lead.
North Attleboro hit on six of its nine field goal attempts in the third quarter to jump back ahead. Jared Vacher sandwiched a pair of buckets around a putback from Ladd, Tommy Onorato drained a three-pointer when Ladd was triple-teamed in the post, and then Ladd himself stepped out of his comfort zone and sank a rare corner three.
“Eight guys got into the scoring column for us, which was great to see,” Mulkerrins said. “We know what George is going to bring and that he’s going to get a lot of attention. We just keep preaching movement off the ball and cutting to the rim. I have a lot of faith in everyone on this team.”
Oliver Ames (6-1, 6-1) travels to rival Sharon on the same day.