Playing under the bright lights at TD Garden for the first time, in Brighton’s 55-52 Division 2 state semifinal victory over Scituate Tuesday night, Nick Simpson found himself in foul trouble with just under six minutes left in the third quarter.
Brighton’s junior wingman — who missed the Bengals’ run to the state championship game last year because he was academically ineligible — had a team-high 12 points when he went to the bench to watch Brighton lose its 6-point edge.
While Simpson and junior point guard Malik James -- who ended up converting the game-winning 3-point play with 1.2 seconds left -- sat out with foul trouble, Scituate took a 39-33 lead.
While Simpson (16 points) initially said his overaggressive defense wasn’t tied to the Garden setting, he quickly added, “Well, it was probably because of the bright lights. Those lights were bright. I couldn’t see anything. But I’m not going to use that as an excuse.”
When asked the same question, Brighton coach Hugh Coleman said, “No he does that all the time. We just have to get him to be a little smarter. Now it’s an IQ thing. Like, be aggressive and be on somebody but understand the difference between putting your hands on someone and fouling them."
With 1:34 left in the third quarter Simpson put his head in his hands when Coleman walked over to him and literally picked him up.
“For a while it didn’t [look good],” Simpson said. “At one point I wanted to cry, but I’m like, ‘No, I’m going to suck it up. I’m just going to stay focused. And at the end of the game I’m going to cry.' And that’s what I did.”
Simpson returned to start the fourth quarter and quickly hit a 3-pointer to make it 41-36, and it wasn’t long before James (21 points) returned to take his curtain call.
After Scituate took an 11-point lead with four minutes to play, James scored and Daivon Edwards hit a 3-pointer to make it 49-43. Then James scored two straight baskets, and Simpson blocked a shot on the defensive end before cutting the lead to 50-49 with 2:30 to play
James tied the game at 52 with a pair of free throws before senior Nate Hogan stole the ball and fed James for the game-winning 3-point play with 1.2 seconds left.
“When the game is on the line, I’d rather have Malik with the ball," said Simpson, "because you don’t know what he’s going to do -- penetrate, drive, or pull up mid-range, floater, And-1.
“You don’t know what to expect from him every game. This game he really came through for me and I love him for that.”
It was James’s pleasure.
“I’m happy for him because I saw tears about to drop from his eyes,” James said. “He deserved it because he didn’t do it last year. I was here, so I kind of know what it takes. And he’s just so excited. Especially it’s good for him to be back on the court because we need him on the court doing what he can do.”
Simpson, who did in fact break down after the game, will now get his first chance to play in the DCU Center in Worcester Saturday -- playing for a state championship.
“It means the world to me, my first time playing in the Garden, my first victory in the Garden,” Simpson said. “It feels so good. And now I can finally take my team back to the championship where we were last year and hopefully we’re going to take it all this year.”
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