In the second quarter of the Division 2 North semifinals at Woburn High on Tuesday night, the Brighton boys’ basketball team faced the idea of playing without Nick Simpson for the second straight postseason.
The 6-foot-4-inch junior guard/forward was sidelined because of academic problems just before the city championship game last winter and was forced to miss the Bengals’ run to the state championship game.
During Tuesday night’s 65-62 victory against No. 1 seed Melrose, Simpson went down with an ankle injury at the 6:32 mark of the second quarter with his No. 5-seeded team leading, 24-13.
“I was praying that he wasn’t out because earlier in the year he did the same thing, sprained his ankle and kind of shocked all of us because we thought we lost Nick,” said junior point guard Malik James (21 points), who scored 8 points in the opening frame but was scoreless when the defense focused on him without Simpson in the game.
During the 1:28 that Simpson was out, Melrose (22-1) went on a 6-0 run to make the score 24-19 before Simpson returned with 5:04 left in the half. After a Melrose 3-point play, Simpson sank a pair of free throws, hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key on his heels, and scored a transition layup to make it 32-25 with 2:30 left in the half.
Brighton (18-6) took a 34-29 lead into the locker room at the break.
“I just added more tape to it and I came out strong,” said Simpson, who finished with a game-high 22 points. “It was hurting for a few min. I just took my time, didn’t walk on it that much and put some more tape around it and came out strong. It’s still bothering me but I have to play through it.”
Brighton — which lost to Mahar, 45-41, in the state championship game last year — will play for the Division 2 North championship at the Tsongas Center in Lowell on Saturday against the winner of Wednesday’s North Andover-Wakefield game.
Simpson stepped up even bigger in the second half against Melrose. In the third quarter he hit a 3-pointer to stop a 9-0 Melrose run. The shot cut Melrose’s lead to 47-44 with 1:10 left in the quarter.
With 6:03 left in the game, Simpson caught a behind-the-back pass from James and was fouled as he made a two-handed power layup. The 3-point-play gave Brighton a 52-51 lead.
“Malik is a good point guard, he got open, my guy helped and it left me open for an and-1,” Simpson said.
James said, “Good thing it got to him or coach would’ve sat me out.”
James made an equally impressive pass to Simpson with 33 seconds left in the game. The play started on defense with Simpson stepping into the passing lane and tipping the ball to James, who ran the floor before finding Simpson under the hoop. Simpson tipped in his own missed layup to put Brighton up, 63-61.
“I was just watching the ball, I knew where the pass was going, I got there first, I got the steal and finished,” Simpson said.
Brighton coach Hugh Coleman said Simpson is the most consistent player on the team and the Bengals suffer when he is not on the floor.
“He’s a great all-around player, he can score form the inside and the outside, he can rebound the ball,” Coleman said. “He gets blocks, he’s a treat out there so having him out really puts us in a little bit of a rocky situation because we lose a lot if other guys aren’t holding it down.”
Coleman said Simpson traveled with the team during last year’s state championship run and watching from the bench is what is fueled him stay eligible this season. He said Simpson went from a 0.5 GPA last year to a 2.8 this year.
“Absolutely, when we lost in the [championship], even though I felt we could’ve won without him … I think if we had him we would’ve won,” Coleman said. “Even with how bad we played.”
Luckily, Brighton only had to worry about playing without Simpson for 1:28 on Tuesday night.
“He’s an awesome player all around so for him to get up and run back in the game, I’m like ‘Thank you god,’ because he’s one of the best players on the team and without him it would be a struggle,'' said James.
“He’s one of the keys to success and I’m glad we had him back.”
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