WILMINGTON – There are losses that are tough to take, and then there are losses like the one the Wilmington High Boys Basketball team suffered last Thursday night against Melrose, which are particularly tough to swallow.
The Wildcats overcame a very slow start to the game to play one of their best games of the season over the final three quarters, only to come up just a little bit short, as Melrose overcame a five point deficit in the final 25 seconds to hand Wilmington a 60-57 defeat at Cushing Gymnasium, dropping the Wildcats record on the season to 5-3.
To say the Wildcats got off to a slow start would be an understatement, as they dug themselves a 9-0 hole in the first quarter, not scoring their first basket until 1:01 remained in the opening frame, trailing 11-5 at the end of one.
Despite that, the Wildcats played very well the rest of the way, and trailed just 50-48 late in the fourth quarter, when senior Will Stuart (game high 22 points) drained his fifth three pointer of the game to give the Wildcats a 51-50 lead with 3:02 remaining.
Shortly thereafter, senior Tommy Mallinson would make an incredible play to extend the Wildcats lead. Moments after hitting one of two free throws to give Wilmington a 52-50 lead, Mallinson (ten points) attempted a three pointer near the top of the key, but sensing he had not gotten off a good shot, Mallinson immediately followed his shot, charging to the basket, grabbing his own rebound and laying it in for a 54-50 lead with 1:21 left.
Melrose would close to within 54-52 with a pair of free throws with 1:00 left in the game, but after the teams traded turnovers on their ensuing possessions, the Melrose coach was called for a technical foul with 27.4 seconds left.
Mallinson went to the line and knocked down one of two free throws, and with Wilmington maintaining possession due to the technical, Melrose was forced to foul, and Stuart knocked down two free throws with 24.3 seconds left to give the Wildcats what appeared to be an insurmountable 57-52 lead.
Melrose however, came back with a clutch three pointer from the corner with 15.1 seconds left to close within 57-55. After a couple of stops and starts, the Wildcats, still leading by two, attempted to inbound the ball with 10.6 seconds left, only to see Melrose come with a steal and convert a three point play on a basket and a foul to take a 58-57 lead with 7.4 seconds left.
Wilmington then turned the ball over on their next inbounds attempt as well, and Melrose would convert a pair of free throws to come away with the 60-57 victory.
Wilmington coach Dennis Ingram was as astonished as everybody else in the gym with the ending, but he also knows that the game never should have come down to that if the Wildcats had gotten off to a better start.
“I don’t think I have ever seen anything like that ending,” Ingram said. “That last play on the inbounds pass with the basket and the foul was very tough. The Melrose kid just made a great play, so there is not much you can do, but it was tough to take.
“But you can say whatever you want about the end, but the bottom line is we didn’t play well enough for the entire game. That first quarter was tough and it came back to haunt us.”
After the dreadful start in the first quarter, the Wildcats played much better in the second quarter, but still went to the half trailing 25-19. The second quarter helped give the Wildcats some momentum and they carried it over to the third quarter as they went on a great run in the middle of the quarter to tie the game.
Trailing 35-26 midway through the quarter, Gavin Erickson knocked down a three pointer with 3:55 left, and moments later a Luke Murphy basket made the score 35-31 with 3:39 left. After Melrose extended their lead to 37-31, Stuart nailed back to back three pointers to tie the game at 37-37 with 1:09 left in the frame.
The back to back threes were just part of a huge night for Stuart, who had five three pointers as part of his game high 22 points. With Melrose double teaming top scorer Tommy Mallinson all night long, the Wildcats needed someone else to step up offensively and Stuart did that in a big way.
“I love the way he gets our offense going,” Ingram said of Stuart. “He battled an ankle injury early in the year, but he has some back well. And he has also developed well as a defender. He might be our best defensive rebounder, even though he is a smaller guy.
Wilmington would trail 41-39 at the end of three quarters, but took the lead early in the quarter on a three pointer by Erickson and would battle the talented Red Raiders evenly for the next several minutes, before the dramatic, heartbreaking, finish.
Despite tough loss, Ingram says the Wildcats will put this one behind them and move forward to their next game, this Friday night when they host Burlington at 5:30 pm at Cushing Gymnasium.
“We always tell our guys not to get too low when things go badly, just like you can’t get too high when things are going well,” Ingram said. “We felt great the other night when we got a one point win over North Reading, and this was a tough loss to take so we feel bad. But we have to put it behind us and move forward.”