By Matt Langone
BOSTON -- Over the past few weeks, Dracut High boys basketball coach Brian Myers has heard from coaches across the state, referees, administrators and fans, all of whom reached out with messages that were part congratulations and part disbelief.
The first-year coach Myers and his Middies had taken the month of March by storm, going from a struggling program that endured a one-win disaster a year ago to a Division 3 North champion this year.
With each and every tourney game that came the Middies' way, you couldn't help but think that the Dracut bubble was probably ready to burst. But through four victories and three game-winning shots in the final 15 seconds or less, Dracut's incredible run persevered.
On March 13, the journey took the Middies to the Beantown basketball mecca that is TD Garden for a Division 3 state semifinal against South champ Bishop Stang. Once again, Dracut was the undeniable underdog that quickly earned respect on the big stage. The Middies led by two with three minutes to go in the fourth quarter after a Will Peters basket plus a free throw gave them the lead.
This time, however, the opposition turned out to be even more tough-minded than Dracut. Bishop Stang held DHS scoreless the rest of the way and went ahead for good on a tough lefty finish by senior Isaiah Rodriguez after a steal with less than a minute to play.
"It's tough to say bye," said Myers. "It's almost easier to lose by 20, because now you lose by four and you were right there. We turned it over four of the last five possessions, I think."
Dracut, which entered the tournament as the 12-seed in the North, finished the season at 14-11. Sophomore guard Jean Carlos Santiago led the way with 18 points. Senior guard Cam McCullough had 10 points and the senior center Peters had nine points and 15 rebounds.
"(Dracut) is a very good team, they're at the Garden for a reason," said Bishop Stang head coach Colbey Santos. "We respected them, we respect their coach. They have tough, hard-nosed players, they're a blue-collar team and in March those are sometimes the scariest teams to play. They showed it today, the ball could have bounced the other way and they win ... That was the toughest team we probably played all year long."
Stang (20-5) shot 25 free throws and Dracut attempted just six, which did prove to have a major impact.
"That was an issue, too. I thought we were just as aggressive. I thought (Peters) was getting hit all game," said Myers. "That is what it is. We've been fighting through that all year, especially in this tournament."
Rodriguez had a monster second half for the Spartans and was huge in crunch time. He finished with 10 points and tied the game at 51-51 before his game-winning layup.
"That's the biggest play I think I've seen in my career at Stang," said Spartans' senior guard Damien Perry of Rodrigues' winner. "The man is taking us to the championship after that, I can't ask for any more from that kid."
Perry played as a freshman on Bishop Stang's 2016 state championship team. He was the best individual player on the floor Wednesday, scoring a game-high 23 points to go with eight rebounds. Dracut fell asleep on defense on the final play of a back-and-forth first half and left Perry wide open and he promptly drilled an NBA-range 3-pointer just before the buzzer to give Stang a 26-24 lead at the break.
The Middies came out confident in the third quarter. Senior guard Mitchell Monette (eight points, four assists) made back-to-back triples, and then Santiago added four points to give Dracut its biggest lead, 34-29, early in the third.
The Spartans responded with an 11-0 run to grab a 40-34 advantage. Senior forward Eric Camacho (12 points, 10 rebounds) had four quick points and Rodrigues added a finish in the paint and a 3-pointer. Camacho leaked out for an easy layup just before the third quarter buzzer to give Stang a 43-36 lead going into the fourth.
"We had been there before, and there was a lot of time left," said Myers. "I told them 'one stop at a time, let's get some stops.' We started to put some pressure on them, probably could've went to that a little bit earlier but it's tough in that situation, I didn't want to gas kids out. We put the press on in the fourth and sped them up and kind of turned them over a little bit."
Dracut methodically battled back and tied it at 48-48 when freshman Adrian Torres scored his only bucket of the game on a floater with 3:30 remaining. The Middies had two chances to take the lead inside the final 90 seconds, but gave it away on both occasions.
"It was a very emotional game, it definitely took a toll," said Peters. "But playing at (the Tsongas Center) last Saturday definitely helped us be a little more used to (the atmosphere)."
Even in defeat, the Middies can't help but look back fondly on what they were able to accomplish this season.
"Most exciting thing I've ever participated in," said Santiago. "I honestly didn't expect it, last year we were 1-19. Now, moving on, the bar is set for us."
Said Myers, "We didn't give up, we battled. I'm proud of these guys. As much as we're upset that we lost, it'll all settle in and we'll be extremely proud of what we've become."