Boys basketball: Harding nips Stratford in state tourney

Jack Ryan takes the ball through traffic in the game with Harding. — David G. Whitham photos

After falling behind by as many as 17 points, the Stratford High boys basketball team staged a furious comeback in its Division III state tournament opener with Harding High at Needham Gymnasium.

Storming back to take a 46-45 edge heading into the fourth quarter, the No. 12 seed Red Devils (11-11) were unable to hang onto their narrow margin.

The 21st-seeded Presidents dug in and, behind 12 combined points in the quarter from Marcel Robinson and Zamir Hairston, eliminated Stratford, 62-61, after a frenetic finish.

“We kept preaching we were not out of this,” Stratford High head coach Tim Swaller said. “A couple of stops. A couple of baskets. And then we did that. We put together a run, which we are capable of doing… Once we were back into it, we had one or two careless plays, and so did they, but just a few things we didn’t capitalize on.”

Stratford coach Tim Swaller reacts to a late call that gave possession back to the Presidents.

The Red Devils had a chance to tie late, when Hairston missed the front end of a one-and-one with 16 seconds left.

Following a timeout, Stratford looked for a lob into the post to Jack Ryan— but the ball appeared to be knocked out of bounds by the Presidents. The referees ruled that Stratford touched it last along the baseline, as Harding took over possession with 8.9 seconds remaining. Robinson then knocked down a pair of foul shots, before Ryan’s desperation 3-pointer as time expired provided the scoreline.

The Presidents (10-11) opened the game on an 8-0 run, capped by a tap-in from Robinson.

Joe August takes the ball to the basket.

“Our energy level was a little low, I don’t know if it was nerves, start of a state tournament game,” Swaller said of the sluggish start. “Early on, we had a tough time keeping them off of the backboards. They had a lot of rebound putbacks and that hurt us.”

Mike August’s basket at the 3:45 mark got Stratford on the scoreboard, sparking a 7-0 flurry. Keith Bush sank a pair of 3-pointers, sandwiched around a brace of free throws from Hairston, to help Harding extend its lead back to 18-7 at the end of the frame.

“They had not shot that well all year,” Swaller said of the Presidents, who connected on six 3-pointers in the contest.

A steal and layup from David Council saw Harding’s lead balloon to 36-19 with 2:02 left in the second quarter.

August hit another 3-pointer on the ensuing possession, as the Red Devils started to climb back into the game — whittling their deficit 38-26 at the break.

Stratford outscored Harding 20-7 in the third, with John Bike’s three-point play giving the Red Devils a 46-45 advantage with 30.7 seconds left.

Ricardo Charles driving layup on the first possession of the fourth quarter gave Harding a lead it would not relinquish, as the Presidents advanced to the second round to face No. 5 Enfield (17-3) on Wednesday night.

Hairston led all scorers with 21 points, Robinson added 14 and Travell Upchurch chipped in with 13.

Ryan paced the Red Devils with 19 markers, while Mike August and Joe August had 13 apiece.

“We have four seniors that we are sending off and we thank them for everything that they’ve done,” Swaller said. “From an effort and coachability standpoint, doing things the right way. We do have a big group coming back… We have to learn from this, work harder and get better.”

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