Koperniak Leads Hoosac Valley Boys into Western Mass Final
AMHERST, Mass. -- Most basketball fans who arrived to the game Wednesday night at the Curry Hicks Cage for the Western Massachusetts D3 semi-final No. 1 Sabis' starting lineup with players of 6-5, 6-4 and 6-4 and think the Bulldogs would dominate the rebounds and have their way with the fifth-seeded Hoosac Valley Hurricanes, with few kids who barely eclipsed 6-0.
But true Western Massachusetts high school basketball fans know to never underestimate the Hurricanes, who play a lot larger than they appear. In the second half, Hoosac dominated the offensive boards, which helped deplete the clock and give them multiple chances at maintaining or extending their lead.
"Work, effort, and heart," Hoosac senior Jameson Coughlan said about his team's success on the boards over a team of taller players. "They are bigger by a few inches. I'm the tallest guy on the team at about maybe 6-1 but it's all about heart. You got to want to box out and got to work. We worked hard today and it paid off."
"The game plan was to lay off of them. Let the guys shoot the ball," said Hoosac coach Bill Robinson. "But we had to rebound and compete on the glass. Number 21 had his way a few times on that backside but for the most part I thought we competed pretty well."
The Hurricanes ended the first quarter trailing the Bulldogs 16-13, but Robinson said he wasn't worried when his team was down.
"Because the guys that were taking the shots were the guys that we wanted shooting and even though they were making some of them, I didn't think it was going to last," he said. "The guys we didn't want taking shots weren't taking them so we were happy with where we were. All that mattered was just getting into your flow and into a rhythm. Which it took us a while to do but once we got into our rhythm and they lost Nathan Colon to foul trouble we were then able to take advantage on both ends with our press and offensively."
Hoosac found its rhythm right the second quarter started and took control of the game with a 14-2 run that started with an old school three-point play by senior Matt Koperniak and ended when senior Avery Hall set up classmate Matthew Carlow for bucket to put the score at 27-18.
The Canes ended the first half with seven straight points after Coughlan laid in two straight baskets underneath before Carlow drained a 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded for half time to give them a 36-23 lead.
Coming out of half-time, Sabis was able to cut down Hoosac's lead as the Bulldogs outscored the Canes 12-6 in the third quarter. Bulldog senior Tyler Griffin took charge in the quarter scoring 10 of his team's 12 points in the quarter, and Sabis trailed by just seven heading into the final quarter at 42-35.
The Canes responded when it mattered. Carlow started the fourth with a steal to give Coughlan a wide open lay-up and then after doubling down on the Bulldogs' Griffin, forcing a jump ball. Hoosac got the ball, and Koperniak drove the lane, finished the basket and got fouled. He sank the free throw to finish off the conventional three-point play to push his team's lead back to 12.
Koperniak played phenomenally for his team all night and finished with a game-high 28 points. He was attacking the basket relentlessly and finishing at the rim.
"I definitely had to attack today," Koperniak said. "The lane was wide open and they weren't really helping much. I was able to make some baskets and knock down my free throws."
Koperniak shot 8 for 12 from the line while going 5 of 8 in the fourth quarter to maintain the Hoosac lead.
"We told him at the beginning of the game that he had to do that early to keep them honest so they couldn't start jumping the wings," Robinson said about Koperniak's performance. "What I thought would happen was they would play us hard on the wings and make it difficult for us to start our offense. So I said to him, 'You've got to drive, you need to make them pay for playing too tight on the wings. If you do that then now they are going to slide the big over and we can find Jameson inside or you have to get to the basket.'
"Early on they let him go to the basket then he started going and they switched. Then he hit Jameson once inside and then at that point the guy didn't know where to go so he stayed with Jameson and Matty had the night he had to have."
Sabis never got closer than nine points the rest of the way as the Canes' corralled five offensive rebounds in the last four and half minutes of the game and along with sinking their free throws to the seal the victory.
Hoosac Valley will now move on to defend their Western Massachusetts D3 championship when they face second-seeded Easthampton on Saturday.
"I think they've seen everything," Robinson said about the strength of having experienced seniors on his team heading into the championship game. "But I'll tell you what we haven't seen and that's a press like Easthampton's. I can tell you that. We will see that Saturday. We've played some good teams along the way obviously but not like Easthampton. They just go, go, go, go, but we will give it our best shot. For sure."