NORTH ADAMS -- The MCLA men's basketball team has two nemeses: Turnovers and free throws. The Trailblazers weren't able to overcome them when they teamed up with Fitchburg State on Saturday afternoon.
The Trailblazers missed four of five free throws at a crucial point in the second half. It would have pulled them within a point with 5 minutes to play. Instead, Fitchburg kept its distance before hanging on to win the MASCAC championship, 80-72.
Adding salt to the fresh wound, MCLA had to sit on the sideline and watch Fitchburg celebrate and receive its hardware.
"Top five toughest things I ever had to do in my life," senior Vernon Cross said. "That's nothing you ever want to do. It sucked, plain and simple. It just sucked."
MCLA was erasing an 11-point, second-half deficit with a full-court press. It had Fitchburg's lead down to six, thanks to four consecutive free throws and a trey. Salem couldn't get out of its own end and then was called for a technical foul.
Anthony Barbosa had just made a four straight free throws and a 3-pointer. He made 1 of 2 at the line, Dominique Bostick missed two and John Jones made 1 of 2 all in a blink. MCLA had left four points on the floor in a six-point game in just 38 seconds.
"Thursday night, we were money from the line. [Missed free throws] hadn't hurt us all season," Morrison said.
It could have been a two-point game. Instead, Fitchburg scored the next four for an eight-point advantage. MCLA did get within two, but the 6-0 run was used to catch back up, not get over the hill.
"That hill that you're climbing, you're stuck on it. You haven't really gotten to the top, Morrison said. "You need to keep making progress for that energy to keep building. ... It probably stalled our energy a little bit."
MCLA was in good shape at halftime with an eight-point lead. The scoring was balanced, the defense limited Tom Henneberry to six points and the rebounds were in the Trailblazers' favor.
Not three minutes into the second half, the game turned away from MCLA. Paul Maurice and Richard Johnson picked up two fouls apiece. For Maurice, they were his second and third and came in the first 32 seconds. He sat on the bench for more than 8 minutes. Johnson was out for nearly eight minutes.
"To me, that was the game," Morrison said. "There was a stretch there coming out of the half where [Fitchburg was] not making shots, and they were getting second and third opportunities. If we get that first rebound, it's an opportunity for us to go up 10, 11, 12, 13 points."
Johnson said he wasn't worried about it because MCLA has routinely received good scoring from its bench. Judging by the first half, it was continuing. Kenny Suggs was MCLA's best player in the first half with 10 points and six rebounds. The strong play didn't carry through halftime.
When Johnson picked up his second and sat on the bench with 17:12 to play, MCLA held a 41-34 lead. When he re-entered with 6:28 left, Fitchburg led 65-54. The Falcons were on a 31-13 run.
Johnson had grabbed three defensive rebounds before checking out. MCLA had just four in the time he was out. Fitchburg had three on the offensive glass.
"What I think it did is it gave them a little bit of energy," Morrison said. "Those are hustle plays, they're energy plays. For whatever reason, a couple times, we had good position but Zach Valliere is a big body. The ball found him, and he put it away once he got it."
Valliere played a big role down the stretch, too.
The Trailblazers were not good from beyond the arc through the first 37 minutes, missing seven of 10. Maurice, the team's go-to 3-point shooter attempted just one, and he didn't make it.
MCLA let six fly in the final 2:45, but none fell. That force the Trailblazers to go inside, and that's where Valliere was waiting. He registered three blocks in the final 1:11 to keep it a two-possession game at all times. He finished with six blocks.
"We got to the basket quite a bit," Morrison said. "We got into that paint area and instead of pulling up for that six- seven-footer that was open, we continued to take it. You take it to the trees that are now waiting for you at the basket."
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