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Defense Rules As Redmen Topple North Andover, 64-42

Jan 29, 2016 11:56PM ● By Rick Spencer

Adam Gajjaoui (23) and Nate Tenaglia (4) have North Andover guard Darren Watson pinned into a corner.

If, as the saying goes, defense wins championships, then the Tewksbury High boys basketball team took a giant step toward winning its third consecutive Merrimack Valley Conference Division 2 championship when the Redmen threw a smothering defensive effort at North Andover High School and chased the Scarlet Knights out of Tony Romano Gym on the wrong end of 64-42 score Friday night.

Senior guard Nate Tenaglia scored 19 points and senior forward Justin Derrah had 18 as Tewksbury captured its 10th win of the season against just three losses, but it was the home team's defensive effort that was the story of this game. TMHS threw multiple defensive looks at North Andover, including a full court trapping press that forced the Scarlet Knights into committing 14 turnovers in the game. The Redmen surrendered no more than 13 points in any one quarter on Friday and allowed a season-low 42 points.

It was the first time all season that Tewksbury has held an opponent under 50 points.

“I was really, really happy with our defense tonight,” TMHS head coach Phil Conners said.  “Our attention to detail was so much better. They followed the scouting report exactly the way they were supposed to. We were proactive instead of reactive.”

Offensively, Tewksbury suffered through another sub-par first half shooting effort, but the defense kept the Redmen in the lead from the opening minute of the game. Tewksbury built an early 8-1 lead thanks to three quick steals and led 17-13 after one period in spite of shooting just 6-for-15 from the field.

Tewksbury’s offensive problems worsened in the second period, as the Redmen shot a miserable 2-for-16 from the floor. But the defense forced multiple turnovers and didn’t give up a single second-chance basket in the second quarter, and TMHS held onto a 26-24 lead at the half.

“We really should have been up more,” Conners said. “We didn’t play well at all on offense. We were taking quick threes, we were taking bad shots, we weren’t converting layups. You blitz someone that bad (defensively) with the turnovers and the way we had them, we really should have been up more.”

But as has been the case in most of Tewksbury’s home games this season, the third quarter was a different story for the Redmen. Derrah, who had missed every shot he took in the first half, finally found the range in the third quarter, tossing in eight of his 16 points and sparking Tewksbury to a 19-7 third quarter advantage that pushed the lead to 45-31 heading into the fourth quarter.

“We talked (to Derrah) at  half time," Conners said. "I said ‘take good shots or get to the rim’. I thought his second half was great. He got to the rim on the first play and he put it in, and from there you could see it open up for him.”

Derrah simply refused to get discouraged.

“I just had to get inside a little and keep fighting,” he said. “If I’m not fighting my absolute hardest there’s no chance, so I gotta keep on fighting no matter how good or bad I’m doing, I just gotta keep on playing.”

Defensively, the seven points allowed in the third quarter was the lowest one-quarter point total allowed by TMHS this season.

“I guess we’re a third quarter team,” Conners said. “Offense comes and goes, but defense wins the game. Defensively I just thought we were awesome.”

Tenaglia tossed in nine points on a trio of three-point field goals in the third period, while senior guard Ryan Briggs put the clamps on North Andover’s leading scorer, senior guard Rob Couyoumjian, holding him to just five points in each half.

“Our defense was awesome,” Conners said.  “Couyoumjian was averaging 18 or 19 points a game. The job Ryan (Briggs) did on him was awesome.”

Derrah added six more points in the fourth quarter while senior forward Adam Gajjaoui tossed in five of his nine points on the night, and the Redmen stretched their lead out to the final winning margin of 22 points. It was Tewksbury’s second consecutive 20-plus point MVC victory, and the third time in their last four home games that the Redmen have held an opponent under 60 points.

“We’ve been working on (defense) the last two weeks,” Briggs said afterward. “We’re trying to get up in everybody and pressure them… I think we’re starting to get better. We’ll keep winning games if we keep playing like this. We’ve been playing way more together lately and it's helping us. We win games every time we play together.”

The win also helped keep a surging Billerica team from gaining ground in the MVC Division 2 standings. Tewksbury improved to 7-3 in league play on Friday, while Billerica pulled off an eye-opening 55-54 upset of Andover at home to improve to 5-4 in the MVC. With Chelmsford (82-56 losers to Central Catholic) and Haverhill (74-55 losers to Lowell) falling further back (both are 3-7 in league play), the MVC Division 2 race is shaping up to be a two-way battle between Tewksbury and Billerica.

The Redmen, who handled the Indians easily at home (84-55) on December 22nd, play at Methuen on Tuesday night and at Malden next Friday before travelling to Billerica for a pivotal MVC D-2 showdown with the Indians on Feb. 9.

Tuesday’s game at Methuen is also a big one, as the Redmen can punch their ticket to the 2016 MIAA state tournament with a win on Tuesday.

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