By David Willis
---- — It was possibly the greatest, most dramatic, heart-stopping final play from Massachusetts in 2013-14.
David Giribaldi, with the weight of the team and community on his shoulders, took the ball to the basket for a game-winning layup as Andover High pulled off a thrilling comeback tournament first-round victory over Billerica last Tuesday, Feb. 25.
How could that be topped? No team could possibly pull off a more memorable finish.
Except Andover High did just that, just three days later.
Led by a tremendous shooting night by freshman E.J. Perry IV and a clutch late block by Connor Merinder, the Golden Warriors held off hard-charging Lynn English for a spectacular 86-81 overtime victory in the Division 1 North quarterfinals last Friday, Feb. 28.
As The Townsman was going to press Tuesday night, the Golden Warriors were battling No. 2 Everett in the Division 2 North semifinals?
So far, the magic has been wearing Blue and Gold.
“This has been crazy,” said Andover coach David Fazio. “After all these years, maybe we have earned a few rolls falling our way.”
Here is a look back at last week’s breathtaking victories.
Andover advanced in the playoffs in dramatic fashion last Friday,
With the clock running down, and a Lynn English player going to the basket for a potential game-winning shot, Connor Merinder faced a decision.
Already with four fouls, did he play it safe and hope? Or did he attack and ensure overtime.
Merinder played for the win.
“I knew he was going to take the shot with the clock winding down and I just knew I had to step up and make a play,” he said. “I couldn’t think.”
Merinder’s block just before time expired sent the game into overtime, and the Golden Warriors held on for the 86-81 OT win.
“Coach (David) Fazio keeps saying fearless,” co-captain John Pisacreta said. “We have to be fearless when we are on the court, and I feel like we were.”
It had looked as if Andover had the game wrapped up in the fourth, as Perry (game-high 28 points) knocked down two three-pointers and Ben Brown and Pisacreta added hoops to make the advantage 68-60 with four minutes to play. But back came English with a 13-5 run to end the fourth, including a pair of free throws with 42 seconds left to tie the score.
The Bulldogs nearly pulled it out in the closing seconds, but as senior captain Freddy Hogan drove to the basket, Merinder made the block.
Perry then opened the extra session with a bucket, and after Lynn English took the lead back, Pisacreta drove to the hoop for two points. Perry added another hoop, and David Giribaldi (25 points) gave the Warriors a firm grasp on the overtime momentum with a steal, layup and free throw to make the score 82-79. English then began to foul, and Merinder and Giribaldi were each perfect from the line to lock down the victory.
“This was just such an amazing win,” Merinder said. “We don’t get scared. We don’t back down from a challenge. If they made a run, we knew we had to make a run right back. We weren’t going to back down.”
It was another nail-biter that led Andover to Lynn English Friday night.
With 27 seconds remaining in the game, Giribaldi attacked the hoop and sunk a contested layup, giving Andover its first lead of the game. That capped a massive comeback that saw the No. 3-seeded Golden Warriors stun upset-minded No. 14 Billerica 54-52 in the Division 1 North first round.
“I was taking the shot,” Giribaldi said. “Absolutely. I had no doubt in my mind. I was confident.”
Added co-captain Merinder, “I knew I just had to do everything I could to get Giri the ball. He was amazing.”
The Indians stunned the Golden Warriors out of the gates, starting the game on a 18-3 run and holding the Warriors to just one basket in the first 6:48 of play. Billerica then ended the half on a 11-2 run to take a 47-39 lead into the break.
“I don’t think we lost confidence, but we were definitely worried,” Merinder said “We had to settle into our game. We had to find our strengths.”
Following buckets by Giribaldi, Pisacreta and Perry IV to end the third period, the Warriors trailed 47-39 heading into the stretch.
But the Warriors began a comeback. Ryan O’Connell forced a turnover then hit a jumper and Giribaldi nailed a three-pointer with a minute left to make it a one-point game. The Warriors fouled, and Billerica went 0 for 2 from the line, then Giribaldi worked his magic.
“We only have one chance at this and that is it,” Merinder said. “It is do or die.”