By Chad Garner
Media News Group
TOWNSEND -- For a half, the North Middlesex Regional girls' basketball team was thinking upset.
"We were thinking upset coming in, especially after coming off Algonquin because they felt they could play," said North Middlesex coach Pat Murphy, whose team lost to Algonquin Regional 59-51 on Tuesday.
But then powerful Wachusett Regional put a quick end to the upset bid, using its distinct height advantage in the third quarter to outscore the Patriots 20-7 en route to a hard-fought, 50-41 Midland League A victory Thursday evening at Bartlett Gymnasium.
"We got manhandled in the third quarter and we didn't have an answer for it," said Murphy, after having Wachusett on the ropes at halftime tied at 19-19. "That was the key to the game."
But there's hope for the Patriots (5-4, 1-2), who showed once again that they can play with the best in Central Mass. by holding their own against Algonquin and Wachusett this week.
"We can use this to build on," Murphy said.
Wachusett (8-1, 3-0), meanwhile, won its eighth straight game after opening the season with a loss to Somerville.
"A win on the road here, it's a big win for us," Wachusett coach Jim Oxford said. "Every win for us is huge."
North Middlesex played an inspired first half and frustrated the favored Mountaineers for the first 16 minutes of the game.
The Pats had the visitors right where they wanted them -- tied at 19-19.
But like all good teams do, Wachusett made the proper halftime adjustments.
Instead of making it a game in which the guards were shooting from the outside, Oxford instructed his team to rely on its major strength, which is pounding the ball inside.
Wachusett certainly did that by registering seven low-post buckets in the third quarter for a convincing 20-7 spurt and 39-26 lead headed into the fourth.
Most of the damage was provided by freshman forward Monica Viapiano, who scored 12 points in the quarter -- 10 coming inside the paint -- and finished with a team-high 16.
"We did make the right adjustment at halftime," Oxford said. "We found the right block -- the sweet spot -- and every single time we went there, and they made their shots like they should make their shots.
"When we have a size advantage, we feel pretty good about going in on the inside."
Murphy admitted his club -- despite displaying all the heart in the world -- couldn't stop Wachusett's bigs in the second half.
"The third quarter, it didn't matter who it was that second big player -- that second matchup -- killed us inside," he said. "They're just too physically big inside."
North Middlesex also didn't help itself by committing a whopping 12 turnovers in the quarter.
"We got careless with the ball a few times and when you don't get shots it's tough to score," Murphy said. "We got a little anxious with the ball in the third quarter."
After Brittany Charlonne (11 points) drained a try to start the fourth quarter, giving Wachusett a 42-26 lead, North Middlesex fought right back and pulled to within 10 points, 48-38, with under a minute remaining.
Senior guard Kim Morgan nailed a jumper, while senior Maddie Balassie (14 points, four three-pointers, 7 rebounds) dialed from long distance and later added a fast-break layup to keep the game close.
"We didn't lay down and we didn't fall apart," said Murphy, clearly proud of the effort.
The first half was quite the battle, as the teams traded the lead eight times. Fittingly, the game was deadlocked at 19-19 at the half.
While junior 5-foot-11 center Mackensey Farina (8 points, 11 rebounds) fell into early foul trouble and mustered only five first-half points, the Patriots kept battling and got a huge all-around spark from Morgan, who scored nine of her team-high 15 points in the half.
"In the first half we managed Farina's foul trouble very well," Murphy said. "I thought (Sam) Lynch came in and gave us probably her best game."
Morgan's slash to the hoop tied the game at 11-11 and she then took a nice entry feed from Ashley Rosko for a wide-open layup underneath the basket for a 13-11 advantage.
Morgan's (15 points, 11 rebounds) long 3-ball regained the lead for North Middlesex at 16-14, and she later put her team back out front, 18-17, after pulling down a rebound and kissing a foul-line jumper off the glass.
"(Morgan) was on the ball tonight," Murphy said. "She's been playing well and she's been doing a lot of little things for us. She went after the ball really hard tonight, and she went in with the giants. She had a decent offensive night, and that's what we're kind of expecting out of her. She's a good one; I like her."
Maty Diabate had 10 points, while Rachel Aho added eight points and 13 rebounds for Wachusett.