Saturday night’s highly anticipated Division 1 North final between reigning state champion Lynn English and undefeated Lowell lived up to its billing with the Bulldogs prevailing 73-63 in overtime before a packed house at Tsongas Center.
For top-seeded Lowell, which entered the sectional title game as the state’s only unbeaten team, the loss in front of 3,000-plus fans at their hometown arena left the Red Raiders disappointed as their quest for a state championship fell just short.
“Our goals were obviously higher, but it is what it is,” said Lowell coach Bob Michalczyk, whose Red Raiders finished 22-1. “I’m proud of my guys. The ball bounced one way, we got a couple freakin’ tough calls, and they [Lynn English] made things difficult. It’s a losers tournament.”
A potential x-factor heading into the game centered around how a small, but quick Lowell team would defend English's massive front line led by 6-foot-8 Ademide Badmus and 6-foot-9 Jean-Baptiste Mukeba.
Lowell countered by applying pressure on the English guards in the front court in an attempt to create deflections and turnovers. It worked for a large part of the game as the Red Raiders slowed down the pace, forced 13 turnovers, and held a Lynn English team averaging 84 points per game to 60 points through regulation.
Badmus and Mukeba still combined for 32 points and 28 rebounds, but Lowell did enough to combat the size differential. The Red Raiders never trailed by more than six points until the overtime period.
"Coming into this game we just wanted show heart," said Lowell senior point guard Nate Siow, who recorded 7 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 assists. "We knew they were bigger than us, but we were faster. So we just wanted to show heart and run."
Siow's four-year backcourt mate, 5-foot-10 guard Carlos Nunez, spent much of his time on the defensive end Saturday helping guard Badmus and Mukeba down low alongside 6-foot-4 forward Tyson Jones-Armstead.
Nunez (21 points) and Siow combined to record five of Lowell's nine block shots, each one electrifying the pro-Lowell crowd.
"They've got size and they're very athletic," Lynn English coach Antonio Anderson said of Lowell. "I've known Carlos since he was in seventh grade and that kid is a springboard. It was a war. It was everything everyone expected."
When Lynn English made their run in the fourth quarter to open up a two-possession lead, Lowell fought back in the final minute. First, Ritchie Etienne canned a 3-pointer to make it 60-58. Then, Siow came up with a steal in the front court and hit Nunez for a driving layup to tie it up.
The fans who already started heading towards the exit reversed course as the game fittingly headed to overtime.
"They just kept fighting, and fighting, and fighting," Michalczyk said of his team. "I just looked at them [Lynn English] as every other team with size. If they can't get the ball over half court then size doesn't really matter. Carlos guarded a guy who was a foot taller."
Lynn English guard Jack Rodriguez wound up being the hero in overtime, scoring nine of his 11 points in the extra session to propel the Bulldogs (22-2) to a second consecutive sectional title and a date with South champion Mansfield on Tuesday night (7:15 p.m.) at TD Garden.
Siow and Michalczyk both mentioned postgame how they had been waiting for Saturday’s matchup since last year.
Despite a somber mood, Nunez stood in the bowels of the Tsongas Center reflecting on the stellar career he and Siow had. The two guards, both 1,000-point scorers and co-MVPs of the Merrimack Valley Conference, helped fuel Lowell to one of its best seasons in program history.
“It feels amazing playing with my close teammates and we battled to the end,” Nunez said. “At the end it wasn’t going our way. But it was amazing for me being with Nate for all four years, getting to play the best teams in the North, and coming to play in the North finals against a very good team. We gave it our all.”