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Pembroke boys’ basketball team passes its quarterfinal test

PEMBROKE – The Spartans are too big, athletic and skilled for most teams to handle. So all season long, Pembroke Academy’s opponents have tried to turn basketball games into mental tests, and last night’s Division II quarterfinal against No. 8 Kennett was no different.

The Eagles’ slow offense challenged Pembroke’s concentration, and their diamond-and-1 defense was a geometry riddle. The top-ranked, defending-champion Spartans (19-1) aced both tests to claim a 44-22 victory and a spot in Wednesday’s semifinals at the University of New Hampshire, where they will face No. 4 Pelham.

Pembroke has reached the quarterfinals for seven straight years and walked away with five wins in those matchups, but last night’s decision might have been the most complete of the quarterfinal bunch.

“I don’t want to say this was the easiest because Kennett is a very good team, but this quarterfinal win was probably the one where we really did what we needed to do more than any of the others,” PA Coach Matt Alosa said. “We executed and we kind of dismantled them.”

The most impressive part of the impressive win came on the defensive end. The Eagles (14-6) slowed every possession to a crawl, searching for the best shot and trying to wear down the bigger Spartans. But no matter how long Kennett held the ball, Pembroke wouldn’t blink.

“It’s hard when people take a whole 40 or 50 seconds for a possession, it’s hard to concentrate that long, usually kids break down somewhere around 13 seconds, but I thought they did a great job concentrating tonight,” Alosa said. “I thought for 28 of the 32 minutes they focused on defense.”

“We have to play defense in practice for longer than that,” PA junior Dominic Timbas said. “So I think we were ready to go.”

The Spartans held the Eagles to 9-for-29 shooting, gave up just two offensive rebounds and didn’t allow more than seven points in any quarter. They wanted to shut down Kennett point guard Brandon DiLucchio and forward Ryan Vajentic, and those two finished with a combined six points.

“They’re really small, but they’re quick, so we just wanted to make sure they didn’t penetrate and force them to take hard shots,” Pembroke senior Kafani Williams said. “So we came in focused on our jobs and I think we did it.”

The Eagles scored just five points in the first quarter, but their diamond-and-1 defense, focused on stopping Pat Welch, held PA to eight points in the first. The Spartans shot just 3-for-10 in that opening quarter, but they found the range in the second. They went 6-for-7 in the frame to take a 24-12 lead into halftime as Welch (eight points) managed to shake free for a pair of 3s and Williams scored seven of his 11 points.

“When they’re all focused on Pat, they pretty much leave me wide open, and I love it,” Williams said. “I know that I can score almost every single time and I just love trying to take advantage of that.”

While Williams was finding open space in the middle of the lane in the first half, the Spartans made some minor halftime adjustments to take advantage of the space the Eagles were giving up on the baseline in the second half. Timbas slid into those open areas in the third quarter, his teammates found him, and the junior scored eight of his 12 points in the third to help Pembroke push its lead to 38-16 heading into the fourth.

“We’re becoming veterans against the box-and-1, or diamond-and-1, defenses like that,” Alosa said. “(Williams) and those guys did a good job flashing into the middle and doing their thing, and then we came out with a couple things in the second half and the guys did a great job making some quick passes for a couple layups. I think at that point they knew we had figured it out.”

Not only had they figured it out, but with the way the Spartans were playing defense, they had won the game. Pembroke scored just four points in the fourth quarter and still won by 22. They might not get many style points for the win, but the Spartans did everything asked of them, and now they may get a chance to use their athleticism and skill on the big court at UNH.

“I think the big court will help our offense flow easier,” Timbas said. “We can spread it out more and make defenses come out to us. I think it will be great.”

“I can’t wait for it,” Williams said, an enormous smile on his face. “I’m so excited, but I can’t really show it all right now.”

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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