ON TO SPRINGFIELD!
Watertown High School boys' basketball team advances to MIAA Division 3 state championship game behind John Korte's 28 points
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The Raiders knew it would be a tight one from the start.
In their closest game of the season, facing the toughest defense they have seen in the playoffs, the Watertown High boys’ basketball team battled down the stretch to come out with a 66-61 victory over the Jeremiah Burke Bulldogs in the Division 3 state semifinal at Burlington High on Wednesday night.
It wasn’t easy, but the North champion Raiders stayed calm and collected in the final minutes to book their trip to the state championship Saturday at Springfield College. Watertown (19-6) will face Easthampton (19-5) in the title matchup starting at 3:30 p.m.
Once again, senior captain John Korte led the way for the Raiders with 28 points, 11 rebounds, and 5 blocks. Senior Wenston Rodriguez added 13 points and 5 rebounds.
South champion Burke (24-3) played aggressive defense throughout the game, which frustrated the Raiders in the backcourt.
Both teams got off to a slow start, and scoring early has recently been a struggle for the Raiders. It also didn’t help that they turned the ball over multiple times and open shots weren’t falling. Burke jumped out to a 12-4 lead, but Watertown adjusted late and started to find their offensive touch. After the first quarter, the score was 17-12 in favor of Burke.
“It took us a quarter or so to get the jitters out of our system and start playing the way we play,” said Korte. “Our defense started to catch-up and get some stops, and then we began to hit some shots, and that’s what really turned this game around.”
In the second quarter, it was more of the same to begin with. Burke’s defense was causing serious problems, and its lead stretched to 8 points. Coach Stephen Harrington took out freshman point guard Gabe Spinelli for a breather and replaced him with Henry Papadopoulos. The junior forward was able to match the Bulldogs physically, and provided an immediate jump-start to the game when he put back a teammate’s missed shot for 2 points. The score at half was 32-31, with Burke just holding onto their lead.
The third quarter went back and forth as the teams traded shots. Clutch threes by Korte and junior Yoseph Hamad (6 points, 4 rebounds) cut the deficit and electrified the crowd. Watertown tied the game with 1:40 remaining in the quarter but still trailed by 4 points to start the fourth.
Then, Spinelli, the freshman, took over.
He scored all of his 10 points in the final quarter, as he was able to get some open shots and layups against the tough Bulldog defense.
“It was a great atmosphere with the fans out there,” Spinelli said. “I tried to stay poised and not let my emotions get the best of me.”
Spinelli’s offensive explosion helped the Raiders turn the tide and finish their comeback. With 5:00 left in the game, Korte drove in and rattled home a layup to give Watertown their first lead of the night, 56-54.
Burke would tie things up at 58 apiece with four minutes remaining, but Hamad came up big with yet another corner 3-pointer to put the Raiders in the lead for good.
“I started feeling it in warmups,” said the junior. “Once I saw one [3-pointer] fall, I wasn’t afraid to shoot it.”
Senior Julio Fulcar, who had a quiet game offensively (7 points) but made the biggest impact defensively, iced the game with four free throws in the final seconds.
When the final buzzer sounded and the Watertown fan section erupted, the Raiders had punched their ticket for Springfield.
Watertown fell in the state semifinals at TD Garden last year, but the Raiders made sure to finish what they started in their second opportunity.
“I think that loss in the Garden last year really stung them,” Harrington said of the returning team members. “It’s just a matter of focusing in again this time of year.”
The Raiders are now looking ahead to this year’s championship game, as has been their mind-set throughout these playoffs.
“We’re one game away from the state championship,” said an elated Korte, standing at center court after the game. “It’s just an incredible feeling, especially doing it with this group of guys.”
The Raiders are ring-chasing once again. They’ll have one more game to etch their names into history, on a state championship banner for Watertown’s Kelly Gymnasium.
–March 14, 2018–
Nathan Follett is a longtime member of the Raider Times staff. Beginning in September 2018, he is serving as Sports Editor.
Elizabeth Allen is a longtime member of the Raider Times staff. Beginning in September 2018, she is serving as Photography Editor.