The Pope John XXIII High School boys basketball team faced an interesting challenge in the Division 4 North Sectionals Friday night at Tewksbury High School.
The Tigers’ opponent, KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Academy, a charter school from Lynn, was hoping to win a state championship in its first year of membership in the MIAA.
But Coach Leo Boucher’s defending state champions ended KIPP’s dreams by claiming a 50-42 victory and a berth in the state semifinals at the TD Garden for the second year in a row.
Senior guard Angel Price Espada launched the Tigers on the road to victory by connecting on three 3-pointers in the first quarter, ultimately producing a 23-12 lead at the half. Espada finished with a game-high 19 points while adding another sterling chapter to his phenomenal high school basketball career.
With the Panthers paying special attention to Espada, Mekhi Collins and Frankie Imbruglia seized the spotlight in the second half and propelled the Tigers to victory.
Collins contributed 15 points, 7 rebounds, 7 steals, and 3 assists in one of the best all-around performances in this year’s State Tournament. Meanwhile, Imbruglia, as he had done so well in the win over No. 1 seed Mystic Valley, came through with some huge hoops at pivotal times.
Luis Velasquez again stepped up in the paint with six points and 10 rebounds while Conor Kelly, an unsung hero in this march to the Garden, had another solid performance in the Tigers’ frontcourt. Cam Erickson also played well in what Boucher termed a total team effort.
“It was a well-fought game, a great defensive game,” said Boucher. “KIPP (17-6) is a great, great team.”
Collins, who consistently drove to the basket with his superior ballhandling skills, has been a force to be reckoned with in the tournament.
“Mekhi has stepped up tremendously the past three games,” said Boucher. These kids realize that playing high school basketball with your friends is a great thing, but if you lose now, you’re done, your career’s over, there is no practice tomorrow. My favorite line of the night was saying, ‘there’s an 11 o’clock practice tomorrow.’’’
Boucher feels the difficult regular season schedule has prepared his team well for the State Tournament.
“The kids wanted to play up, it’s a tribute to them to say, ‘Coach, get us some big teams. We want to be tournament ready. We want to get in and be tournament ready,’ and I think they are.
Boucher was excited to be preparing for another trip to the Garden, one of the great venues in America, not far from where the PJ coach grew up and began his amazing career in the sport of basketball.
“I’m getting a little bit older and a little nostalgic,” said Boucher. “I’m pretty excited. I’m just so excited for these kids. Last year, when we were in the Garden, I said, ‘Take a walk around, look at it. Look at the Celtics lockerroom. This might not happen ever again. And for several of our players, it’s happened a second time, so this is pretty special.”