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 North semifinal at Woburn High School on Tuesday night.
The juniors combined for 43 points in the fifth-seeded Bengals’ 65-62 win over the top-seeded 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 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 win. “Everyone screams out Malik. But what if he gets double-teamed and Nick’s wide open?”
That was the situation James found himself in after the steal and the junior did exactly what he was supposed to do. He passed the ball to the wide-open Simpson, who connected on a put-back after missing the initial layup, putting Brighton ahead for good.
“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 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.”
Brighton (18-6) will play the winner of Wednesday night’s game between North Andover and Wakefield at the Tsongas Center in Lowell on Saturday.
James’s 8 points gave Brighton a 24-13 lead at the end of the first quarter, but Melrose focused their defense on the point guard after Simpson left with an ankle injury and went on a 6-0 run.
Even when Simpson checked back in with five minutes to go in the half, Melrose cut the Brighton lead to 2 with a 3-point play by Samuel Jean-Gilles.
But Simpson (22 points) scored the next 10 points for Brighton to carry them on a 10-7 run to close the half with a 34-29 lead.
For Melrose (22-1), it was the second straight year its season ended with a loss to Brighton in the regional semifinal.
“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,” coach Mike Kasprzak said. “Twenty-two and 1, to lose to the best team in the state, we’ll take that.”
Brighton knows it still has plenty of work to do. After losing the Division 2 state championship last year to Mahar, Coleman said 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 [North] Andover, and that’s not going to be easy,” Coleman said.