By Joyce Erekson
The Classical High boys basketball team punched its ticket to the Division 2 North final with a 62-54 win over Malden Catholic Tuesday in the semifinals at Burlington High School.
This is the Rams’ first trip to a North final since 2001 when they lost to Lynn Tech in the Division 3 North title game. Tech ended up losing in the final. Classical will play Brighton Saturday at a time and location to be determined.
The Rams threatened to pull away a couple of times, building up an 11-point lead in the first quarter and a 13-point lead midway through the third quarter, but Malden Catholic never backed down. Classical saw an 11-point leading heading into the final quarter dwindle to four when the Lancers’ Christopher MacDonald buried a three 50 seconds remaining.
One of the things the Rams have done well in the latter part of the season is shoot foul shots and that proved key down the stretch. Classical went 7-for-7 from the line in the final 4:44 of the game. The two biggest points came courtesy of Erick Solis, who hit two free throws with 26 seconds left to nudge the lead up to six. Overall the Rams, who shot about 85 percent from the line in the five games leading up to the North semifinal, were 10-for-15.
Jaylen Johnson was on fire for the Rams in the first quarter when he scored eight of his game-high 22 points. Gilbert Minaya heated up in the second half, scoring 13 of his 18 points.
“Prior to this game, we had about six games where Jaylen would take chances and if he didn’t get the steal, he wouldn’t recover. We drilled into him at practice that the only way we were going to win is if he has an active role in the five-person zone. He did a great job tonight.”
The Rams also had strong performances from Edwin Solis (9 points); Erick Solis (6 points) and sophomore Dyrrell Rucker, who contributed five points.
“It was a game of runs,” Classical coach Tom Grassa said. “We got up by 11 and all of a sudden, they got it down to five. Then we made another run. Having the guys stay mentally strong and believing in what we do (made the difference).”
The Lancers were without their big gun, 1,100-career point scorer Mike Boyd, who sprained his ankle two days earlier, but their 6-4 senior Jonah St. Clair stepped up with 20 points before fouling out with just under a minute remaining. The Lancers’ 6-3 guard Jean Francois Kendrick of Peabody (12 points) also had some clutch hoops.
Malden Catholic coach Jim McCune said Classical is a tough team to stop.
“What makes them so tough? They can all shoot the ball and they can all handle the ball,” McCune said. “Defensively we were trying to keep them away from the basket, but when we did we gave them a lot of good open looks. They shot the ball pretty well.”
The start of the season proved to be a bit of a rocky ride for the Rams (21-3). They lost their opener to Everett, won a game, then lost to St. Mary’s in the first game of the Boverini Tournament. They went on to go 18-1 over the last 19 games. This is the Rams first 20-win season since 1994, when they won a state title.