Redmen Rock The Romano, Eliminate Belmont, 58-56Mar 03, 2015 12:34AM ● By Rick Spencer
Nate Tenaglia (4) scored 18 points to help Tewksbury knock off Belmont. 58-56 in the MIAA state tournament.
When Phil Conners accepted the job as head basketball coach at Tewksbury High four years ago, he dreamed of someday fielding a team so good that it would pack the TMHS gymnasium with frenzied fans rooting on his Redmen in big games.
That dream came true – and then some – for Conners and his under-sized band of over-achievers Monday night, as the Tewksbury High boys basketball team rocked the rafters above Tony Romano Court with a thrilling, come-from-behind, 58-56 second round MIAA state tournament victory over Belmont High.
The nearly 2,000 fans who jammed the stands on either side of the Romano were treated to a heart-pounding, tension-filled game that saw seven lead changes in the fourth quarter and wasn’t really decided until TMHS junior forward Adam Gajjaoui intercepted a Belmont inbounds pass as the final buzzer sounded, sealing the biggest win in decades for the Tewksbury High basketball program. The win advances Tewksbury to the Division 2 North Sectional semi-final round.
“When we first came, when we first started this, playing in that old gym? This is unimaginable,” Conners said afterward. “To look around four years later and see what these kids have done. It was an amazing atmosphere with the fans and the way our kids didn’t break when (Belmont’s lead) went to six…They made an amazing comeback. Kids stepping up all over the floor…it was just unbelievable.”
“It’s the greatest feeling in the world right now,” junior guard Nate Tenaglia agreed. “From what it was four years ago when (Conners) came in. No one ever thought we were going to be here. It’s just a great feeling.”
Tenaglia and his back court mate, senior captain Alex DiRocco (who were recently named co-Most Valuable Players in the Merrimack Valley Conference’s small school division) were Tewksbury’s offensive leaders, each scoring 18 critical points to pace the TMHS offense.
But all five of Tewksbury’s starters made key contributions, as junior forward Justin Derrah scored 13 points, and Gajjaoui overcame early foul trouble and scored seven fourth quarter points while leading the team in the hustle and intensity departments during the stretch run.
“Each guy (contributed) in his own way,” Conners said. “That (win) doesn’t get pulled off without each guy doing their own thing.
DiRocco scored 11 of his points in the third quarter as Tewksbury erased a 37-31 Belmont lead with an 8-0 run midway through that period. DiRocco scored all eight of Tewksbury’s points during that stretch, and somehow helped his team overcome a 14-point third quarter effort from Maurader 6-foot-5 senior superstar center Adam Kleckner, who led all scorers with 20 points in the game.
Conners singled out DiRocco’s first three-pointer in that stretch as one of the key moments of the game.
“We needed something out of the ordinary and he takes (a three-point shot) from about the Tony Romano sign and knocks it down. It was just a huge shot,” Conners said. “Then he comes back…and he takes one off the dribble and banks it in and all of sudden we’re back in the game.
“That’s a senior,” Conners added. “In the last month you could see it in Alex. Seniors just get it, and he’s gotten it."
But DiRocco was just one of a long list of Redmen who stepped up and delivered in critical moments during this game, and none was any bigger than senior captain Joe Csokmay’s pair of game-winning free throws in a tension-filled one-and-one situation with 28 seconds left in the fourth quarter. The two free throws were Csokmay’s only two points of the game. Csokmay was 0-for-5 from the floor prior to stepping to the line.
“It’s gotta be in the back of his mind that he’s struggling shooting the ball, and he gets to the free throw line and he just stepped up and put the game away,” Conners said of Csokmay. “He’s our glue guy. You don’t see him in the stats, but he does everything for us.”
Senior guard Derek McGaffigan also played a critical role in the game, coming off the bench to grab nine rebounds in the first half alone.
“Derek was absolutely amazing for a kid who has played minimal minutes,” Conners said. “It was an amazing job by Derek. He’s 5-7 and he’s out out-rebounding guys all over the floor.”
Tenaglia was also an iceman for Tewksbury, connecting on 5-of-11 three-point field goal attempts, none bigger than a 24-foot bomb that put Tewksbury ahead to stay, at 54-53, with 3:37 left in the game. He also collected six assists.
Tenaglia’s big shot was far from the last word in this game, however, as both teams dug in defensively in the final three minutes. Csokmay’s two free throws and a critical lay-in by Gajjaoui on a perfect feed from Tenaglia was all the offense Tewksbury could muster over that stretch, but the Redmen held Belmont to just three points over the final 3:47, and that was the difference maker.
“The way the kids defended, with so much intelligence and so much toughness, it was just amazing,” Conners said.
The end result was a win that will go down in the annals of TMHS hoop history as one of the biggest and most exciting in decades.
“It was definitely the most intense game I’ve ever played in,” said Tenaglia. “It was the most fans, the greatest atmosphere I’ve ever been involved in. Our fans really stepped up tonight and helped us win.”
“It was easily the best game I’ve ever played in,” DiRocco said. “The atmosphere made it amazing. It was wild. Our fans were crazy, their fans were crazy. It was a great atmosphere.”
The win was the 20th of the season for the Redmen, who finished 18-4 in the regular season and were seeded third in the Division 2 North Sectional tournament. They now advance to the sectional semi-finals, against the winner of a Wednesday night game between Middlesex League champion Arlington, and Malden Catholic, which finished third in the Catholic Conference. That game will be played Thursday night at 7:00 p.m. at Woburn High School.