Belmont’s Tony Martinez hopes early-season struggles set Red Raiders up for playoff success

Keegan Martinez prepares to put up a shot in a game against Winnisquam last January. Martinez and fellow junior Anakin Underhill have led the way for Belmont’s offense this season.

Keegan Martinez prepares to put up a shot in a game against Winnisquam last January. Martinez and fellow junior Anakin Underhill have led the way for Belmont’s offense this season. ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL / Monitor staff

By ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL

Monitor staff

Published: 02-08-2024 12:04 AM

Through six games this season, Belmont boys’ basketball sat at 2-4. With a roster made up of mostly freshmen, sophomores and juniors, perhaps it wasn’t totally surprising. But head coach Tony Martinez believed his group could turn the corner. And they did.

Since a 68-35 loss to St. Thomas Aquinas on Jan. 5, the Red Raiders have won eight of their last 11 games to vault themselves into the playoff picture at 10-7. They’ll play their final regular season game at Gilford on Friday night.

“At the beginning of the season, we played a lot of good teams that were very experienced, have a lot of veteran returning players,” Martinez said. “I hoped, because we were so talented, that we would maybe eke out a couple wins, maybe surprise some people, but experience and the learning curve had to happen, and I think in all our losses and the struggles we had earlier has made us a stronger team.”

Now, he said, there’s a far greater level of confidence in the gym.

“I said to them the other day, ‘You guys are no longer inexperienced players. You guys are varsity basketball players.’ I think once they got that mindset, they’re like, ‘Yeah, we’re here,’” Martinez said. “I think they all started locking in a little bit more and understanding what I was trying to coach them to do. We were able to go on a nice run, and we are playing better basketball now when you need to.”

The Division III playoffs tip off on Tuesday with the preliminary round. At 10-7, the Red Raiders can finish as high as sixth in the standings with a win on Friday or fall as low as 10th with a loss. Belmont would need to be an eight seed or better in order to host its first round contest. 

Last year, Belmont was the nine seed and lost to No. 8 Conant, 56-44, in the first round.

If the Red Raiders want to make a deeper run this season, they’ll need big performances from junior forwards Keegan Martinez and Anakin Underhill, who have guided the Belmont offense all season.

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“I truly believe that they’re two of the best big men in the division,” Martinez said. “Anakin has really stepped up his game this year and been in more of an assertive role. Keegan keeps getting better and better and has added a 3-point shot to his skill range, with his post moves and starting to take guys off the dribble. They’ve done a lot for us, and they’ll continue to do that for us.”

The Red Raiders have also received contributions from an array of other players, including senior guard Hutch Haskins, junior guards Michael Collette and Brady Thurber and sophomore guards Wyatt Carroll and Jack Binder.

“It’s been fun to coach because I can put in a lot of different variations depending on who’s got the ball,” Martinez said. “I think this year, we have our two main guys, but there’s been so many other contributions throughout because guys are finding their roles and learning what they can do at the varsity level.”

That variety should help Belmont come playoff time. Though the Red Raiders might not snag a top seed in the playoff bracket, they should pose a stiff challenge to any team they have to face.

“I think this is a very special group. They work really hard, and I’ve worked them really hard because my biggest thing is to try to get them to believe in how good they can be when things come together,” he said. “It’s just been a really enjoyable year, with the peaks and valleys, because even myself as a coach, if you’re not trying to improve on different things, what’s it all about?

“I think as a whole program, we’re improving, and we’re trending in the right direction. It’s really exciting.”