By Conor Walsh
---- — GLOUCESTER — The desperation for the Gloucester boys basketball team last night was obvious.
Entering the game at 6-10 on the year, the Fishermen needed a win over Saugus to maintain hopes of ending the regular season at .500 and thereby securing a state tournament berth.
That desperation carried the Fishermen to a lead for the majority of last night’s game. Ultimately, though, Gloucester’s youth and inexperience outweighed its fervor, as a fourth-quarter lead slipped away from the Fishermen.
The Sachems put up 24 points in the final frame and forced countless turnovers with a full-court press and the Fishermen simply couldn’t keep up, falling by a final score of 67-59 to drop to 6-11 on the season.
”Tough loss,” Gloucester coach Bill Cahill said. “They got some big baskets and we didn’t, and we didn’t rebound the ball well down the stretch. We just had a little trouble with their pressure. A little jittery, and we just couldn’t finish the game. Is it frustrating? No, because they’re young and they’re capable of playing good, and Saugus hit some big shots.”
The Fishermen got out to a fast start to the game, thanks largely to the perimeter shooting of senior Austin Davis, who knocked down four first-half 3-pointers to help Gloucester extend its lead to as many as 15 points.
But as Gloucester looked to pull away from the Sachems, they always seemed to have an answer.
More often than not, that answer came in the form of center Shane Ripley, who notched a game-high 24 points and 14 rebounds as he dominated the paint.
Ripley was a matchup nightmare for Gloucester, and the foul trouble Gloucester center Drew Shairs (16 points) got into as a result of guarding Ripley stuck Shairs on the bench and threw the Fishermen out of rhythm.
Still, though, Gloucester was able to hold off Saugus’ push until the fourth quarter, when the Sachems took their first lead of the game with just 5:04 to play.
As the Fishermen went cold, the Sachems got red hot. A 3-pointer from forward Joe Bertrand (17 points) put the Sachems up, 52-51, at the 5:04 mark, and the next possession Bertrand extended the lead with a long two.
The teams traded baskets, and the lead, for the next few minutes, until Saugus point guard Brandon Wladlowski took over. Wladlowski (16 points) regained the lead for his team with a nice drive to the hoop with 3:09 to play, and drained 3-pointers on the next two possessions to stretch the lead to 64-57.
And with the Sachems’ defense not allowing the Fishermen any easy looks, that lead was simply too much for Gloucester to come back from.
Connor Adkins had one of his better games of the season, notching 15 points from his forward spot while also battling with Ripley. Davis finished with 14 points, and Dylan Aptt added eight off the bench.
”They’ve got to learn how to handle the pressure, and when a team makes a run, we’ve got to come back and make a run too,” Cahill said. “They get down a little too much instead of focusing on making a run, and that’s just youth. The point guard hit two big threes and they were more aggressive on the glass, and that’s the difference.”
While the Fishermen may have crippled their chances at a postseason appearance, there’s still hope. The top two teams of each conference earn automatic berths, and at 3-9 in the NEC, the Fishermen now trail Saugus by three games with three games to play for that No. 2 spot.
The top spot’s already been locked up by undefeated Danvers, which leaves Gloucester, Saugus and Swampscott to duke it out for that final spot.
It’s a long shot, but a shot nonetheless.
”I told the kids tonight that it’s a playoff game,” Cahill said. “It’s our season. Play hard and do what you can do, and the effort was there. The execution was a little bit behind theirs. They’re a good team, too, they’ll make the playoffs and they just played better tonight. They hit some big shots.
”It’s going to be tough because we’re three games behind Saugus now. It’s going to be tough. One game at a time.”