TAUNTON, Mass. – Each time the Taunton boys basketball team hits the court, the first option in the offensive game plan is to get junior Tyler Stewart the ball.
The Tigers didn’t need to look for a second or third option many times on Tuesday night as Stewart, a 6’5 center, delivered a career-high 34 points to lead the hosts to a 73-63 win over visiting Stoughton. With the win, Taunton punched its ticket for the postseason.
Stewart, who also hauled in 13 rebounds and had a pair of blocks, shot 16-of-24 from two-point range and came away with points after each of his nine offensive rebounds to lead the way for the Tigers.
“What a night,” said Taunton head coach Charlie Dacey about Stewart’s performance. “When we’re practicing, there are all sorts of convolutions we expect people to do to him, and we were expecting doubles from all over the place and it just didn’t happen tonight. If you leave him alone down low, obviously he can do some business. He’s used to waiting for the double and he’s able to finish when he’s close to the rim like that.”
Taunton wasted little time getting Stewart the ball as he scored the first two buckets for the home team, including a three-point play on the first possession of the game.
Only five times in the game did a possession that included a shot from Stewart not result in points for Taunton. He had back-to-back misses early in the first quarter, and another one later that resulted in a missed putback from a teammate. He converted his only other miss of the first with a putback of his own.
He did the same with his lone miss of the second quarter and shot 5-for-7 in the third quarter, but one miss was a full-court heave to try and beat the buzzer. And in the fourth, he had just three shots but the one time he missed, he gathered the offensive rebound and scored himself.
“That’s always going to be the first look, getting Tyler a touch,” Dacey said. “If the double comes, we can kick it out but he’s our go-to guy. And the rest of the league has smartened up on Trent [Santos], Canton was denying him the ball and Mansfield is just Mansfield, they can deny anyone. But if they deny those guys, that leaves Tyler down low. And Danny [MacDougall] and Faisal [Mass] are doing a good job recognizing the double team.”
Stewart’s early success (14 points in the opening quarter) resulted in a big lead for the Tigers after eight minutes (18-6). Taunton added 19 more points in the second quarter, getting four apiece from sophomore Faisal Mass (14 points, seven rebounds) and junior Josh Lopes (eight points, four assists), and a pair of layups from sophomore Tristan Herry (nine points, six rebounds, four assists) and junior Nigel Choate.
But Stoughton’s offense showed signs of life as well, with senior guard Ahmad Jahed (eight rebounds, five assists) scoring half of his 16 points in the second quarter and Myles Grigalunas-Powell (16 points, 10 rebounds, three assists) and Donte Tyler hitting three-pointers to get the Black Knights within 11, down 37-26, at halftime.
Stewart scored eight points early in the third with Trent Santos (from Danny MacDougall), Mass, and Choate also chipping in as the Tigers stretched the lead to 17 points, up 49-32 with 3:30 to play in the third quarter.
Stoughton turned to the three-point line to get back into the game and found success, closing the third quarter on a 12-4 run. Grigalunas-Powell, Brett Pendenza, Jake Queeney, and Obinna Ugwuakazi (12 points, eight rebounds) all connected down downtown to cut the deficit to 53-44 entering the fourth.
Queeney and Ugwuakazi sandwiched three-pointers around a make from Stewart to open the fourth quarter and suddenly Stoughton was down just five with seven minutes to play. After Taunton missed on back-to-back three-point chances, they got the ball back down low to Stewart, who ended up grabbing his own miss and putting it off the glass.
Another stop preceded a free throw from Lopes to make it 58-50 with 5:26 to play and Mass drove the baseline with a strong take to push the advantage back to double figures, 60-50, with 4:39 left.
“He’s really improved over the course of the season,” Dacey said of Mass. “He was in football shape at the beginning of the year and now he’s got a little bit of quickness, he has the toughness…and he’s just a sophomore too. It was just important for us to get into a flow because we didn’t on Friday night.”
Mass scored twice more in crunch time with Herry and Lopes each adding buckets as Taunton increased its lead to 68-54. Queeney sank another three late to make it an 11-point game but Stoughton was unable to get the deficit within single digits again.
“We started to relax,” Dacey said. “And we’re not young anymore, that’s no longer an excuse. The sophomores have had a ton of experience now. There’s no such thing as relaxing in this league, especially against that team. They play on emotion and I didn’t want them to get going, because when they get going they are tough. They are so athletic, they can obviously hit the three, so they can get back into a game pretty quickly.”
Taunton boys basketball (7-4 Hockomock, 11-4 overall) will visit Oliver Ames on Friday. OA nipped Taunton with a three-pointer in the final seconds in the first meeting on December 18th. Stoughton (4-7 Hockomock, 7-8 overall) will travel to North Attleboro on the same night. The Black Knights handed Big Red a loss in the first meeting.