BEVERLY, Mass. – This time around, a buzzer-beater was not needed for the win in the big game.
Cushing Academy won last year’s NEPSAC Class AA championship with a buzzer-beater from about mid-court from Jalen Adams (6’2″ Jr. SG, Roxbury (MA)). The Penguins won this year’s title with Adams taking MVP honors in their 78-68 win over Kimball Union Academy, and with their other top players coming up big as they needed them to.
While last year’s title will never be taken away from them, head coach Barry Connors knows how minds work in this realm and said he feels that among other things, this validates last year’s title to a degree. This year, the feeling is a bit different, but that’s not just because they won more comfortably this time around.
“Anytime you win on a buzzer-beater, the question is out there,” said Connors. “They wonder if you were really better.”
This time around, there was little doubt, even though Kimball Union was never really out of the game.
Adams had 16 points and made plenty of plays at both ends of the floor, and he came up big in the clutch again. He was driving and finishing, including while getting fouled, and late in the game he had a block at one end and then came down and hit a dagger three-pointer that you could see coming to put them up 69-59 with less than three minutes to go.
Backcourt mate Kaleb Joseph (6’3″ Sr. PG-SG, Nashua (NH)) knew another championship was not going to be given to this team. He had stretches this year where he wasn’t as driven as he looked back in September or on Sunday, but the lightbulb went on again at the right time. Joseph had a game-high 24 points, hitting a wide array of pull-up jumpers and finishes at the basket, while also making several passes. He hit several big shots along the way and looked like someone who has been in the gym a lot with the way he scored.
The guy who can be easily forgotten is St. Bonaventure-bound Idris Taqqee (6’4″ Sr. SG, Snellville (GA)). On Sunday, he was at times the best player on the floor, and his 20 points only tell part of the story. He hit several jumpers in the flow of the offense and got baskets off broken plays, and was the glue guy he’s always been. Few in NEPSAC have his feel for the game, and it was on display here.
They form the backbone of the team; Connors noted that “we have gone all year as they’ve gone.” They got big help from Connor Gilmore (6’7″ Sr. PF, Toronto (Ont.)), who scored 12 points before fouling out. Included in that was a three-pointer before the buzzer of the first half. More importantly, he battled inside against Kimball Union’s Malik Abu (6’8″ Sr. PF, Mattapan (MA)). Abu had his moments but was never a big factor in the game.
Connors rode his top guys as much as he could. He has other players with some talent, including Kimani Lawrence (6’6″ Fr. SF-PF, Providence (RI)), who got better as the season went along and played well at the Hoophall Classic in January, and Jarrod Simmons (6’4″ Fr. SF, Moon (PA)). They will be more important players next year and beyond.
As is often the case, the path to a title was not a smooth and straight line. That was certainly the case for this Cushing team, as they had more ups and downs than might be expected of one of Connors’ more experienced teams. But when it mattered most, his aces came up big. They made sure that this season, the Penguins wouldn’t need a buzzer-beater to win it all.