WORCESTER — Less than a minute remained in the fourth quarter as Malik James headed to the bench, where he was greeted by hugs and smiles from his teammates and coaches.
Last year’s trip to the MIAA Division 2 state championship didn’t end as planned for Brighton, but Saturday’s game at the DCU Center was much different for the Bengals, who won their first state title in school history with a 59-41 triumph over South Hadley (17-8).
After a thrilling victory over Scituate in the semifinals, coach Hugh Coleman stressed the importance of getting off to a quick start and keeping the momentum down the stretch. When the Bengals (21-6) play with a sense of urgency, they are one of the toughest teams in the state to keep up with, and they had that motivation from the opening tip.
Senior guard Nate Hogan hit a 3-pointer for Brighton’s first points and the Bengals never looked back. Brighton led, 19-10, after eight minutes, finishing the first quarter on a 7-0 run.
James took over in the second frame, scoring 8 of his 16 points. The 6-foot-2-inch point guard, who has saved Brighton with some late game heroics in the postseason, was simply in the zone.
With memories of last year’s loss to Mahar in the state title game lingering, James woke up at 9 a.m. and went to a gym near the DCU Center to shoot and run some drills with his brother.
“I knew we weren’t going to get on the [DCU] floor early enough because of all the games,” James said. “I took it into consideration just to go work out so I could be on and contribute to my team.”
Despite James’s dominant second quarter, South Hadley’s Cameron Earle (16 points) helped keep the game close as he chipped away with 11 points, including two 3-pointers, in the first half.
Brighton led, 32-22, at the half and kept the energy flowing in the third, holding the Tigers scoreless for more than two minutes during a 12-2 run.
The Tigers fought to keep their hopes alive, but Nick Simpson’s 7-fourth quarter points, 5 from the free throw line, helped keep the Bengals in control.
“Missed free throws add up at the end, so I didn’t want to make free throws be the reason we lost,” said Simpson, who was 9 of 11 from the line. “It got to the point where I wasn’t making my outside shots, so I just put it in my head that if I wasn’t hitting those shots, I’ll go to the foul line and make all my foul shots.”
When Brighton reflects on its successful season, the city tournament will stand out as the team’s defining moment .
“The coaches are so proud that this is the first city and state title for Brighton high school in 171 years,” Coleman said. “That is amazing for me.
“It means so much and we feel honored to be the first to bring that home, and that’s something that obviously no one will be able to take away from us. We can always walk into that gym and be like we were the first.”Coleman dedicates win to Jack O’Brien, on Boston.com/bps