On one end of the court during TechBoston’s boys’ basketball practice Monday, players on the second unit stood with hands on knees in sweat-soaked shirts.
On the other side, the starters ran through the same rigorous drills with aplomb, breathing heavily, but sharing laughs with a confidence that they have been here before.
Many were key members of TechBoston’s 2018 Division 2 state championship squad, and few showed any nerves as the Bears prepared to face D2 North champion Belmont in Wednesday night’s state semifinal at TD Garden.
Thanks to the steadfast work of Johnny Williams, TechBoston’s coach, those starters had been preparing for that moment for years, and when their time came, they pulled out a 61-53 victory over Belmont in a gritty performance.
TechBoston (23-2) will face D2 West champion Taconic (20-3) in the state final (Saturday, 2:15 p.m. at WPI) for a second straight year as the Bears look to secure back-to-back championships.
“Three years ago you would’ve seen [starting junior guards] Shamar [Browder] or Alan [Nunez] bent over,” Williams said. “We go through this for so long. Now, to their testament, they’re more accustomed to it.”
Monday’s practice was intense, but compared with the preseason interval training dubbed, “Two Weeks of Hell” by TechBoston’s coaching staff, it was a virtual walkthrough for Browder, Nunez, Lyron Bennett, Rich Burton, and Jahvon Pierre.
Over 10 years at the former Dorchester High, Williams honed his coaching style to create a pipeline within his program. There were six freshmen at varsity practice on Monday, all of whom traveled with the team to TD Garden, and will join the team in Worcester.
Williams said originally he tried to devise a system to fit his players, but about halfway through his tenure, the Mattapan native decided to mold players into relentless machines capable of pressuring opponents at full speed for 32 minutes without showing signs of fatigue.
To achieve that goal, he began running practices in which the first hour and a half is dedicated to conditioning. By the time the players touch a basketball, they’re eager to show what they can do. When they finally get to play in games, maximum effort can be expected without question.
“All we do is run, so I’m used to this,” said Bennett. “You see how we play. If you don’t have the stamina, if you don’t have the hustle, then we lose. This [intense practices] is a critical attribute towards our success.”
Those practices help explain how the Bears force 20-plus turnovers per game, beat opponents to seemingly every loose ball, and win the rebounding battle despite starting the 6-foot-1-inch Burton at center with four guards around him.
“They really drive off of the fact that they’re not just playing for themselves,” said Williams.
“They’re playing for their community, for their families. A lot of guys play for the love of the sport, [our players] play out of necessity. They feel if they don’t play as hard as they do, they’re going to let someone down.”
After warming up, the Bears ran a variation of the three-man weave in which the same three players go up and down the court four or five times before earning a rest.
Then the drill transitioned into a simulated 3-on-2 fast break, and Browder (who scored a game-high 30 points in the state semifinal) showed off his athleticism by rejecting Keyshawn Barnes before taking the ball the other way and finishing against his teammate.
Younger players also contribute. Freshman forward Chris Norman III stepped in at center when Burton got into foul trouble in Saturday’s sectional final at Taunton High, and helped TechBoston to a 68-64 win over rival New Mission with 10 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 blocks.
“I have to get on my freshmen, because they’re the next batch,” said Williams.
While TechBoston ended Belmont’s regular season with a 73-68 defeat in the Comcast Classic, the Bears have ample respect for their state semifinal opponent. They’ll be making their first appearance at TD Garden since last year’s semifinal was postponed and moved to Burlington High because of snow.
Williams, 43, has learned a great deal in 20 years of coaching. He chooses his words carefully, and knows how to motivate his players for the biggest games of their careers.
“I tell them that nothing is guaranteed,” said Williams. “I tell them, this school, historically, has been frowned upon.
“But you guys are the shining moment, you’re the gem, you’re the precious metal that’s been blasted and compressed and now you’re a shining diamond. And you don’t want anyone to take it from you.”Nate Weitzer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.