Up until the final quarter of Tuesday's home tilt with Saugus, the Essex Tech basketball team had never trailed.
But the visiting Sachems were able to remain within striking distance all evening, finally getting some tough shots to fall in traffic and building as big as a four-point lead with just under five minutes to play.
But as good as the Hawks had played all night, they weren't going to let it slip away.
"I just told them we have to grind defensively," Hawks head coach Juan Juan recalled saying to his squad during a fourth quarter timeout. "A lot of times when we get in holes like that, we try to get through it by forcing our offense. But defensively is how we're going to win games — and I thought we really locked in more after that."
Led by Jose Tavares' contagious on and off-ball pressure, the Hawks quickly erased the deficit and regained the lead on his layup with under three to go. A couple more stops and some clutch free throw shooting down the stretch eventually sealed the deal as Essex Tech walked away with a 58-51 victory.
"I think that's really the first time all year that we committed defensively," added Juan, his team now 4-5 on the season. "(Jose) is our grinder, our intensity guy. He doesn't really score offensively but he puts it out there on the other end."
While Tavares anchored the defense, it was junior guard Kendall Hersey who continued to put on a show on offense. The shifty facilitator lit it up for a game-high 24 points, including three triples in the opening frame and a 7-for-7 clip from the charity stripe.
Hersey's versatility was on full display as he also contributed with five rebounds, four assists, a steal and one crowd-pleasing rejection.
It was Hersey's ability to control the offense and help out defensively that helped earn the Hawks the big win. "I thought Kendall really committed defensively tonight, especially since he was struggling defensively," said Juan. "I thought tonight he led the right way."
Hersey's pass to a cutting Pat Levesque (4 points, 8 rebounds in his first action of the season after recovering from surgery) with under a minute to go was the nail in the coffin. Saugus had their chances to close the gap, but strong close outs on the shooters (Saugus hit seven triples on the night) and good positioning underneath for rebounds wrapped things up.
Prior to the final quarter, Essex Tech built as big as a 10-point lead. It lead by five after one, one at the break, and five after three. The Hawks outrebounded their foes 33-22 and assisted on an impressive 12 of their 21 field goals.
Ryan Reynolds was also a bright spot in the win, finishing with eight points, while Nick Irving contributed 10 points, five rebounds, three assists and a pair of steals. The Hawks will look to make it three wins in a row when they host Fellowship Christian Thursday afternoon.
Essex Tech58, Saugus 51
at Essex Tech
Essex Tech — Jose Tavares 2-1-5, Anderson Villa 2-0-4, Kendall Hersey 7-7-24, Aaron Fournier 1-0-3, Patrick Levesque 2-0-4, Nick Irving 4-1-10, Ryan Reynolds 3-2-8, Keegan Dooley 0-0-0, Max Doherty 0-0-0, Andrew Fournier 0-0-0. Totals: 21-11-58.