By Jamie Rosa and Justin A. Rice
WATERTOWN — Only using five players on Wednesday night, South Boston’s boys’ basketball team upset defending champion Watertown High in the opening round of the Division 3 North bracket.
Losing three players to academic ineligibility recently, the No. 12-seeded Knights (11-10) were forced to play with a short bench consisting of just two players pulled up from the JV ranks.
“I go with the momentum, they were playing solid ball so there was no need to sub unless one of my players was in foul trouble,” Southie coach Hakim Johnson said after the 57-52 victory. “It was a team effort, Stevie [Weathers] did a good job of not giving [Watertown’s Marcus Coppola] too much space and Tyrell [Pugh] gave him some tough looks.”
The sharp-shooting Coppola walked the line between getting his teammates involved and taking over games for the fifth-seeded Raiders (13-8) this season. Watertown finally fell off that high wire act on Wednesday night as Coppola scored 10 points in the opening half before finishing with a game-high 28 points.
“I know how to take over the game like I did down the stretch there but you gotta get your teammates involved,” the junior guard said. “The offense was just stagnant the whole game.
“I was trying to get them involved early on to set the tone so they knew they just couldn’t focus in on me, which they did a lot. The whole game they were just focusing on me, not really worrying about what a couple other guys were doing.”
Bringing his team back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit, Coppola converted a 3-point play with 1:21 left to cut the lead, 51-48.
“[Coach] just told us to stay calm, be patient and realize you’re gonna get your points,” Southie senior guard Anderson Santana said after scoring a team-high 26 points.
On South Boston’s next possession they threw away an inbound pass only to get the ball back when an errant Watertown pass resulted in a backcourt violation.
“We hung in there and we got it,” Santana said. “We just got lucky.”
The Raiders did get a defensive stop and Coppola’s final bucket of the game made it 51-50 with 49 seconds to play. Then Watertown fouled Santana, who missed both free throws. But John Vizcaino rebounded the second miss for Southie and Santana ended up back on the foul line, this time knocking down both shots to go up five.
The Knights, who hit their first 10 foul shots before finishing 17-of-23 from the line, made three free throws in the final 20.8 seconds to ice the game.
“It feels great but I’m not satisfied,” said Johnson, noting that the victory was his first in the post season as the Knight’s head coach.
South Boston advances to play Lynn Tech (12-6) at 4 p.m. on Sunday at Lynn Tech. Lynn Tech defeated No. 13 Northeaster Regional, 86-46, in the opening round of play.
“We played together, we played with energy, we didn’t stop playing, we didn’t give up any possessions,” Santana. “We didn’t stop playing, we played till the whistle.”
Pugh and sophomore center Euclides Semedo each contributed nine points apiece for Southie on Wednesday.
In the first half, Coppola scored 10 points before the Knights took a 27-24 edge going into the break. With 4:15 to play in the third quarter, Santana hit an NBA-range 3-pointer to put Southie up 36-29.
“I can hit those,” Santana said. “I know I can shoot those and I have faith in myself.”
Coppola scored six points in the third before the Knights took a 39-32 lead going into the final quarter, during which Coppola scorched Southie for 13.
“Looking back on it now I probably just should’ve taken over the game but that was the game plan,” Coppola said of getting his teammates the ball early. “Every game it is. One guy can’t do it all. I gotta get my teammates involved.
“We got a lot of juniors on the team, 13 juniors, and all of us need to hit the weight room,” Coppola said. “A lot of us need to play AAU, do whatever you can to get better, because this is not acceptable for this program. Losing in the first round after coming off a state championship, that’s not acceptable, and it can’t happen next year.”
On the same note, Watertown’s status as defending champs provided motivation to South Boston.
“If you’re not psyched to play a team with three championships this decade,” Johnson said. “Then you don’t deserve to play.”
Jamie Rosa is a junior football player at South Boston High. He can be reached at email@example.com.