WOBURN— The two-headed monster of Malik James and Nick Simpson proved to be too much for an undefeated Melrose team in the Division 2 semifinal at Woburn High School.
The juniors combined for 43 points in the (No. 5 18-5) Bengals’ 65-62 win over the (No. 1 22-1) Raiders and were at the heart of practically all of Brighton’s crucial possessions.
One of those plays came right after James gave Brighton a 61-59 lead on a drive through the middle of the paint. James stole the ball on a tipped pass from Simpson the very next possession and once again had the ball in his hands with a chance to seal the game.
“I mentioned this the other day in practice. I said, ‘When the game’s on the line, who takes the last shot?” Coach Hugh Coleman said after the game. “Everyone screams out Malik. But what if he gets double teamed and Nick’s wide open?”
That is the exact situation James found himself in after the steal and the junior did exactly what his teammates answered their coach with. He passed the ball to the wide-open Simpson who connected on a tip after missing the initial lay-up, giving Brighton a two-possession lead.
“It’s an honor because he takes a lot of pressure off me. He’s a good scorer, he’s an all around scorer so by me giving it to him I know it’s a bucket or he rebounds,” said James, who finished the game with 21 points. “It’s a big relief to have him on the floor and when we both got our head in the game, we’re unstoppable together and as a team.”
Relief is exactly what the entire bench of Brighton must have felt after Simpson checked back in to the game after injuring his ankle 1:28 in to the second quarter.
After James’s 8 points gave Brighton a 24-13 lead at the end of the first quarter, Melrose focused its defense in on the point guard in Simpson's absence and went on a 6-0 run.
Even when Simpson checked back in with 5:00 to go in the quarter, the team had to watch as forward Samual Jean-Gilles cut the Brighton lead to two with a 3-point play.
Simpson then scored the next 10 points for Brighton to carry it on a 10-7 run to close out the half for a 34-29 lead at the break.
“I just added more tape to it and I came out strong," said Simpson who led the game with 22 points.
The junior certainly played through it whether it was preventing Melrose from taking a early lead in the fourth with a huge block on an attempted lay-up by senior Matthew Sherlock (led Melrose with 21 points) or being the beneficiary of a beautiful behind-the-back pass from James later in the quarter.
“Good thing it got to him or coach would have sat me out,” James said.
For Melrose, it is the second straight year coach Mike Kasprzak’s team has lost in the semifinal to Brighton.
“They’re a great team; best player in the state, two best shooters in the state, everybody back from last year. We have three guys back from last year so we handled ourselves with great composure,” Kasprzak said. “22-1, to lose to the best team in the state, we’ll take that.”
Even with the win, Brighton knows they’ve been in this position before. After losing the Division 2 state championship last year to Mahar, Coleman said that his team’s job is not finished.
“Right now, I take it with a grain of salt, I look at what we didn’t do well, what we did do well, how we can improve because we got the winner of two good teams, Wakefield and Andover, and that’s not going to be easy,” Coleman said.
Brighton will play at the Tsongas Center in Lowell on Saturday against the winner of Wednesday’s North Andover-Wakefield game.
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