TAUNTON, Mass. – It’s been a most challenging season for everyone, but with a delayed start and a one-week hiatus smack in the middle of its schedule, it’s been a bit tougher on the Taunton boys basketball team.
So it’s only fitting that the Tigers made clinching their first-ever Hockomock League Kelley-Rex division title a bit more difficult than it needed to be.
A near-perfect start from visiting Attleboro coupled with a sluggish first eight minutes from the Tigers put the hosts in a double-digit deficit.
But as these Tigers have done all season, they responded. Despite starting their season two weeks after everyone else, Taunton opened the season with five straight wins. And when they were forced to the sideline for a week, the Tigers came right back and beat one of the best teams in the state in Mansfield with just one day of practice.
And on Thursday afternoon, in their fourth game in the five-day span, the Tigers dominated the final three quarters of play, not only digging out of the hole they were in but burying it and covering it with a mound of dirt in the form of a 76-57 win over the Bombardiers.
The Tigers’ game with King Philip will not be made up and the Hockomock League is expected to award Taunton with a win via forfeit for that game multiple sources told HockomockSports.com.
It marks Taunton’s first league title since 2008 when it won the Old Colony League.
“Everyone has gone through issues this year but this is an extraordinary group, I’ve said it many times,” said longtime Taunton head coach Charlie Dacey. “Across the board, not just the first five either, you go right down the roster. We’ve had no issues at all this year. There’s usually something but this group has been great, they really like each other too.
“When we got into our offense, we got the lead into double figures and that force them to pressure a little bit. Then we really started to figure out that if we can our offense, things were working. Once we’re relaxed, like any team, they get into a comfort zone and we really pulled away.”
Attleboro got whatever it wanted to start the game, hitting mid-range jumpers and getting to the rim on open layups. The Bombardiers shot 9-for-16 from the field for 20 points while their defense was on point too, the Tigers were forced to settle for contested looks inside and out. The result was a 20-9 lead, seemingly stunning Taunton.
“We had confidence from yesterday’s game and that carried over to today,” said Attleboro head coach Mark Houle. “I thought the first quarter we played as well as we could have…defensively, offensively, transition baskets, we controlled the boards. They started rebounding better and we couldn’t stop them. We had them for 26 possessions in the second and third quarters and they scored on 22 of them. We tried to change it up as much as we could but they made plays consistently and we couldn’t stop them.
“Overall between yesterday and today we really battled but [Taunton] is a really good team.
The comeback didn’t come quickly, but it was steady. Attleboro scored to push its lead to 22-9 to start the frame and Taunton had three chances to get back on the board but went empty on two shots from the field and two from the line. The next play, however, might have been the spark that lit a fire for the Tigers.
Junior Tristan Herry, who scored a season-high 20 points, poked the ball free and won a foot race to the loose ball on the other end of the court. From there, Taunton went on to score on 12 straight possessions to erase the deficit and take a lead by halftime.
“Tristan was bustin’ on defense, he was trying to do all the right things on offense. I think that sunk into the other four, if he’s going to do it then we should do it. He was the catalyst in that turnaround for us. Tyler [Stewart] changes the flow of the offense because he demands attention, even if he’s not scoring. But Tristan got us going.”
Senior Josh Lopes (nine points, five rebounds) scored the first three points on a jumper and a free throw and Herry stepped up on the offensive end with his first three-pointer. A steal by Nigel Choate gave Taunton the ball back and an offensive rebound resulted in two points from senior Tyler Stewart (10 points, five rebounds).
Attleboro’s Justin Daniels (17 points) answered for the Bombardiers but junior Trent Santos (18 points, four assists) attacked the basket for two for the hosts. Herry sank his second three of the period to make it a four-point game but junior Evan Houle (nine points, four rebounds) answered with a triple of his own out of an Attleboro timeout.
The Tigers’ relentless offensive attack continued as an offensive board from Choate turned into a free throw from junior Faisal Mass (12 points, 12 rebounds, five assists). Joe Francois-Annevil took a feed from Alvin Harrison and scored down low but Herry drained another triple and a steal from Choate resulted in two after a putback from Mass.
Stewart had a big block and then found Choate for two down low, and after another Attleboro turnover, Mass finished through contact to put the hosts ahead for the first time, 32-31. Stewart then sank an elbow jumper and the Tiger took a 34-32 lead into halftime.
“I think we were a little fatigued from yesterday but going into the second, we talked with each other about how we felt we were the better team,” said Stewart, who is committed to play at Wentworth. “Tristan hit some big shots that really changed the momentum for us. Once he hit those shots, it got the rest of us going.
“Just a chance to play [this season] was really exciting for us. I think we’ve shown that this group plays really well under adversity. The amount of things we’ve had to go through to get to this point is insane, all the way back to the start of last year through this year, shows a lot about this group.”
Taunton’s offense wasn’t as effective in the third quarter, but it was pretty close. The Tigers picked up points on 10 of their first 11 possessions of the quarter to build a double-digit advantage.
Lopes and Daniels traded buckets to start and the Tigers finally had an empty possession on their second trip up court. Mass found Santos for a three and then Santos returned the favor to Lopes for two more. Attleboro cashed on its third shot of its next possession when Chris Holcomb sank a three to keep the deficit at four.
Santos and Mass each connected from downtown in a one-minute span and layups from Santos and Stewart pushed Taunton’s lead to 55-45 going into the final quarter.
“Herry kept them in it early and then after that, it was all of them, I think every single one of them played well today,” Houle said of the Tigers. “It was pretty spread out, and it felt like any time we did get a stop in the second or third they got an offensive rebound and got an extra opportunity.”
Attleboro cut into the lead early in the fourth as a strong take from Francois-Annevil make it 60-51 but Mass answered with two after a nice fake, Santos dropped in a floater, Herry hit on a pull-up, and Lopes scored after a turnover and the lead ballooned to 68-51 with just under four minutes.
After scoring just nine points in the first, Taunton scored 20 or more points in each of the second, third, and fourth quarters.
Taunton becomes just the third team to win the Kelley-Rex division in boys basketball since the Hockomock League split in two. Mansfield has won it 10 times, including a share this year, while Franklin won it outright in 2012 and earned a share in 2016.
Taunton boys basketball (8-1 Kelley-Rex, 8-1 overall) will host Sharon on Saturday at noon for its final game of the season. Attleboro (5-5, 10-5) will host rival North Attleboro on Sunday at 1:30.