NORTH ANDOVER — After taking an early lead and giving it a good effort, it still wasn’t good enough for the Burlington High boys basketball team to stay close to the defending Division 2 North champions.
The Red Devils needed to play a perfect game against their No. 6 seeded opponent and just couldn’t do it, resulting in the end of their season.
Instead, North Andover overcame a slow start by going on a big second-quarter run to take a six-point halftime lead. Then North Andover broke it open with a third-quarter run, to cruise to a 76-57 victory over 11th-seeded Burlington, in a Division 2 North first round game at North Andover High last night.
The Scarlet Knights (14-7) placed four players in double figures, but none were bigger than Jake McElroy, who just couldn’t miss and led all scorers with 31 points. Darren Watson added 13 points, and Matt Niejadiik and Gabe DeSouza chipped in 11 points each, to help North Andover advance to the quarterfinals against Salem or Malden Catholic.
“North Andover is really good, they won Division 2 North last year (beating Woburn), and they brought everybody back,” said Burlington coach Phil Conners. “(Jake) McElroy couldn’t miss, and when we made one defensive mistake he made us pay with three points repeatedly. He just made everything and was unbelievable.”
The Red Devils (11-10) competed and at times controlled play, largely due to big games from seniors Ryan Culhane with a team-high 23 points, and Al Wong who added 18 points. But despite playing good defense Burlington just couldn’t stop McElroy from hitting big threes.
“Jake (McElroy) played really well at a high level tonight,” said North Andover coach Paul Tanglis. “He’s been doing that for us for three years. Yet we were balanced and got everyone involved, and that’s when we are at our best.”
This core group of athletes at North Andover not only won last year’s D-2 North Sectional in basketball, but many also played for their D-2 Super Bowl champs this past fall in football. McElroy is also an outstanding quarterback, Watson a standout running back while DeSouza was a main threat as a wide receiver and defensive back.
North Andover was holding an early a five-point lead, 11-6, with three minutes left in the first quarter but then the Red Devils caught fire offensively.
Wong hit three shots including a three, while Mike Melanson and Culhane also hit shots, to spark a quarter-ending 11-0 run. This gave Burlington a six-point lead at 17-11 by the end of the first quarter.
“Burlington is a really good team, and (Ryan) Culhane and (Al) Wong are two really tough offensive players,” said Tanglis. “They were getting in the lanes, and Culhane was taking tough shots and hitting them. We weren’t keeping either of them in front of us, and that’s what helped them take an early lead.”
But after baskets by Culhane and Melanson extended Burlington’s lead to 22-13 early in the second quarter, the Scarlet Knights finally regained control of play and went from a big deficit to take a big lead which they held for good.
DeSouza hit three shots including a three and McElroy also hit twice from the floor. Kyle Moore drained a 3-pointer while Niejadiik and Watson also scored, to ignite a huge 19-2 run, and give North Andover an eight-point lead at 32-24 late in the second quarter.
“We tried to keep the ball out of (Jake) McElroy’s hand and crowd his space, but they had a lot of other weapons as well,” said Conners. “It was hard trying to defend them, especially when they made most of their shots. In the first quarter we worked our game plan well, but we fell away from that in the second quarter.”
The Red Devils managed to close the first half with a 3-pointer by Wong and a drive to the hoop by Culhane, to cut their deficit to 35-29 by halftime.
After Culhane opened the third quarter with two baskets, North Andover took control of play behind the white-hot McElroy.
McElroy hit four threes during this stretch, while Watson added two baskets and Niejadiik also scored, to key a 20-8 run, and extend North Andover’s lead to 58-43 by the end of the third quarter. In all, the Scarlet Knights connected on 10 3-pointers.
“We missed some free throws, started exchanging baskets with them, and couldn’t stop them defensively in the second half,” said Conners. “We had to depend on their shooters to miss shots but they didn’t, and they’re just a very good team.”
Any chance of Burlington making a comeback in the fourth quarter quickly evaporated when McElroy, Niejadiik, and Moore also hit shots, to extend North Andover’s lead to 21 points at 68-47 with four minutes left in the game. Burlington never got within 18 points the rest of the way.
Despite the season-ending loss, Conners was still proud of how his team fought back from a losing record more than halfway through the season, to rally and still qualify for the tournament.
“Ryan Culhane had a great game and went out unbelievable, and Al Wong continued his great senior year tonight,” said Conners. “I’m proud of where we were to what we finished at. We beat three teams late in the season that beat us the first time we played them. That says a lot about these kids.”