Blue Devils Sneak Past Red Raiders
LEOMINSTER -- It’s just the way you want an important rivalry game to be played: intense, but respectful, hard-fought and close pretty much from wire to wire.
It came right down to the very last possession, but the Leominster boys’ basketball team held on at the end as the Blue Devils posted a 60-56 win over archival Fitchburg in front of a standing-room only crowd at Leominster High Monday night.
The win lifts Leominster to 12-9 overall, and the Blue Devils will await the pairings for the Central Mass. Division 1 Tournament later this week.
Fitchburg, which experienced some growing pains under new coach Danny Ortiz, ended its campaign at 4-16, saving quite possibly its best performance of the campaign for the season finale.
LHS coach Kevin Grutchfield noted just how important the win was for his program.
“This was a survive-and-advance game for us. We did what we needed to do to get the victory; it wasn’t pretty, we didn’t play well for the most part, and Fitchburg deserves a ton of credit,” Grutchfield said. “It was huge, though, because we’re fighting for a home playoff game. We’re right around the 8 and 9 seed with Framingham, so whoever has the better record will get the home game.
“We took care of business tonight, and we’ll see if North Attleboro can beat Framingham (Thursday night at Framingham).”
Ortiz noted how proud he was of his side, which had clawed its way out of a 10-point hole early in the fourth.
“It was a tough game, but I’m really proud of my kids. The first time at home, they took it to us in the second half and we didn’t have an answer,” Ortiz said.“That’s a pretty good Leominster basketball team, but I think tonight we proved that we’ve improved throughout the season and that there will be a lot of excitement in Fitchburg basketball going forward.
“A few possessions there late, I thought we could have had and probably execute a little better, but we didn’t, and that’s a credit to (Leominster).”
Unlike the first meeting between these two interscholastic titans in Fitchburg last month, an 83-51 Leominster win that was over early in the third quarter, the rematch was on a knife’s edge. Tight defense with no room to break free was the name of the game.
And while Fitchburg missed its first seven shots, the Red Raiders only trailed the Devils by four, 16-12, after the first eight minutes.
Fast-forward another eight, and FHS held a one-point, 28-27 lead going into the locker room at halftime.
“They hit their shots. They were pretty hot in the first half,” Grutchfield said afterward. “We couldn’t stop them, they kept getting to the rim, they made the shots when they needed to make them, and our defense wasn’t up to par in that first half.
“This was a tough game, and Fitchburg has improved in every game toward the end. I knew it was going to be a battle.”
And with both teams fighting tooth and nail in the first five minutes of the third, neither side managed to build more than a one- or two-point lead on the other until Leominster’s Treyvon LeBlanc converted an old-fashioned three-point play, drawing the hack and adding the harm to make it 39-35 in favor of the hosts.
The Red Raiders had taken a 41-39 lead after Devin Deleon ripped a 3-pointer in the corner with 2:32 remaining in the third, but Leominster would respond with a massive 14-1 run to turn this rivalry tilt on its ear, giving the Blue Devils a 53-42 lead -- its largest of the contest.
Janier Cora Huetas (game-high 16 points, 9 rebounds) started the run with a floater from the side to tie the score at 41 before Givensky Pierre-Louis (13 points, 8 rebounds) scored off the offensive glass, a putback on a shot that was just askew.
Pierre-Louis finished the third with a little weaving drive with a handful of seconds remaining, and LHS took a 45-41 lead into the fourth.
The run didn’t end there, as Derrick Thomas (13 points, 7 rebounds) opened with a 3-pointer at the elbow, before Jeremiah Paulino hit the front end of two from the line.
Pierre-Louis added another basket, before Fitchburg’s Cairo Jimenez (12 points, 7 rebounds, 4 steals) hit the front end of two. Pierre-Louis then capped off the run.
But Fitchburg still felt it had a say in the game, and hit a couple of massive shots to make it rather uncomfortable: Jimenez and Gabriel Garcia both hit 3-pointers in back-to-back trips for the Red and Gray, before Edwin Rivera, after Jimenez came down with a key offensive rebound, scored to make it 53-50.
Two minutes later, with Leominster leading by three, 55-52, the Blue Devils went to the foul line three times in the final 2:52 and managed to sink 5-of-6 from the line, four of which coming after a series of tries on both sides failed to caress the inner nylon.
Luis Aldarando scored a team-high 13 points for Fitchburg, with Bryan Beltre adding 11.