By Chad Garner
FITCHBURG -- You can't teach heart. And Fitchburg High boys' basketball coach Jack Scott knows his program is loaded with players who'll do anything to win. The Red Raiders got a real gut-check against visiting North Middlesex Regional Friday night.
Fitchburg trailed by 12 points late in the third quarter, but managed to dig down on defense and limited the Patriots to only four points in the final quarter, while the Red Raiders' offense erupted on a back-breaking 22-4 run en route to a 56-47 Midland League A victory at the Doug Grutchfield Field House.
"I know we'll never see these guys just roll over and cash it in," Scott said. "But it is nice to know deep in the third quarter and you're down 12 and things aren't looking good that there's something left. I'm very confident there's always something left. It's fun to be around a bunch of kids that no matter the situation they're not going to quit."
With the victory, Fitchburg stayed perfect at 6-0 and 1-0 in the league, while North Middlesex fell to 4-3 and 0-1.
"This was a good challenge for us," North Middlesex coach Erik Dellasanta said. "We recognize that we can play now, but we've got to play a little longer."
North Middlesex led 43-31 after Ryan DeLuca canned two free throws, but Fitchburg sophomore sniper Mick Snowden gave his team life with a big trey to end the third quarter.
Fitchburg kept up the intensity in the final quarter, cutting the deficit to 44-40 on buckets by Elijah Kukta, Jose Hernandez (11 points) and Manny Payton (11 points).
North Middlesex's last points came with 5:10 left after Bobby Larsen (13 points) canned a trey.
From there, Fitchburg's aggressive defense seized control. "It was just a matter of the five guys that we had on the floor deciding that they were going to defend as a unit," Scott said.
Snowden (game-high 15 points on five 3s) said that Scott told the Red Raiders that defense was going to win this game.
And Scott was certainly correct.
"Third and fourth quarter, we just locked up as a team," Snowden said. "That's what coach preaches to us every day, is defense. Defense is going to win you games. We told each other, 'Yo, we're not going down like this, we're going to play hard and play defense.'"
Good defense led to good offense for Fitchburg, which started to get several open looks, including an NBA-range three-pointer by Snowden, along with Charles Doss' (10 points, 12 rebounds) steal and easy lay up, cutting the deficit to 47-45 and forcing North Middlesex to call a timeout.
"When you play on the road against Fitchburg or any Mid-Wach A team, you've got to play a complete four quarters," Dellasanta said. "I thought Fitchburg played more aggressively in that fourth quarter. Their backs were against the wall and some kids responded, made shots and certainly out-rebounded us on the glass. They made some big plays late, and that's how you win games."
Doss' two free throws tied the game at 47-47, and moments later Hernandez hauled in one of his game-high 14 rebounds and kicked a pass out to Snowden, who buried a trey -- his fourth of the second half -- to give Fitchburg its first lead of the night.
"I think tonight was Mick's best game of the year, by far," Scott said. "Without him on the floor tonight, we don't win this game."
The Patriots continued to miss shots and were one-shot-and-out as Fitchburg controlled the glass.
"Without defense, some bad things could have happened," Snowden said. "It was a test. We either could have folded our arms up and gave up or kept fighting. We kept fighting. Fitchburg Red Raiders are known to fight; we're never going to back down. We could have given up, but we didn't."
Kukta's fast-break lay up and Doss' steal under the hoop and easy bunny put the finishing touches on the Red Raiders' impressive come-from-behind victory.
"We had a solid lead and we struggled to get the ball in," Dellasanta said. "I think that Fitchburg picked it up on both sides of the floor.
"I thought early we played real well and gave ourselves a chance to win on the road against a good club."
North Middlesex played an exceptional first half, limiting Fitchburg to 25 points while carrying a 31-25 lead into the locker room.
Long-range shooting was the difference in the first half, as Francis Phillips (10 points) and Larsen each knocked down two trifectas. Larsen's first trey gave his team a 22-18 advantage and his second was a buzzer-beater from the corner to end the half.
In between, the Pats led by as many as eight points, 28-20, after Caleb Baker's lay up, Drew Patno's nice baseline floater and Larsen's leaner.