By Sean Sweeney
TOWNSEND -- Tyler Thomas redeemed himself from the foul line Sunday afternoon.
Having missed two free throws less than 48 hours earlier in a win over Groton-Dunstable Regional, Thomas had the opportunity to make up for that with Quabbin Regional in town. And with 4.5 seconds left, Thomas did so with ease as his free throws gave the North Middlesex Regional boys' basketball team a come-from-behind 47-46 win over the Panthers at Bartlett Gymnasium.
The win lifts North Middlesex to 8-10 on the season, and 6-1 against teams in Division 2 or below -- plenty for the Patriots to qualify for the Western Mass. D-2 tournament. Quabbin dropped to 10-7.
"We couldn't get going today," North Middlesex head coach Erik Dellasanta said. "We never had a flow on either side of the ball, and finally we got some pressure a minute or two into the fourth, but it really changed what we were doing, and it really got us going.
"We wanted the ball in Tyler's hands. We ran a couple of sets for him coming hard to the basket, and let him make the reads. Tyler's strong and plays tough, he knows how to earn his buckets, and we trusted him."
Quabbin held a seven-point, 32-35 lead midway through the third quarter, but shots barely fell for either team in that stanza: the two teams shot a combined 4-of-29 in the third.
But North Middlesex clawed its way back into this one, tying the score up for the first time since the opening tap thanks to a deep trey by Richie Sharp, only to have Quabbin come back the other way to see Griffin Bennett triple to make it 38-35 Panthers.
The play of Bobby Larsen drove the Patriots' engine, as he led the team with 13 points and seven rebounds. His play was important to the hosts, as he went 3 of 4 from the line in back-to-back trips, tying the score at 40-40.
Ninety seconds later, Bennett's trey in the corner reclaimed the lead, but nine ticks later, Larsen took to the opposite corner in front of the Trench and buried a trifecta of his own.
Bennett traveled on the next possession, only to have Larsen, on a pass from Drew Patno (nine rebounds), hit a driving layup to give North Middlesex its first lead of the game, 45-43, with 1:06 remaining.
"Bobby's really stepped up his game," Dellasanta said. "Going through this season has helped him a lot. He understands what offensive aggression is, and he understands he has to play all out. He went hard to the basket today."
Then, after a Patno defensive rebound, the Patriots turned the ball over for the 20th and final time on the afternoon, giving the ball back to the Panthers with 45 seconds left. Twenty ticks later, Andrew Haley dribbled into the lane and kicked it out to Bennett (game-high 16 points) at the elbow, hitting the 3-pointer to reclaim the lead, 46-45.
Then after a Haley foul, the inbound to Larsen went to Thomas, who drove from the left. Bennett fouled him en route to the hoop, sending him to the line for a one-and-one bonus situation.
He calmly hit both.
"I just told myself I was going to make them," said Thomas, the nephew of former North Middlesex field hockey superstar Stacy Cronin. "I didn't want overtime. That's all I wanted."
Quabbin came down and tried to win it with a 3-pointer at the bend, but Dylan Kierman's attempt clanged off the back of the rim as time expired.
The Panthers had control most of the way, as North Middlesex had turned the ball over 14 times in the first half. At one point, Quabbin held a 10-2 lead as the Patriots did not get anything going. But Dellasanta said that he felt fortunate to go into the locker room trailing the tourists by three, 26-23, at intermission.
"We didn't feel like we came out and play overly well," he said. "As a result of that, you just have to find a way to be in the game. You can't win it in the first half, and we felt good about our position."
Quabbin shot 2 of 9 in the second quarter, but shot six-of-10 from the free throw line to keep its advantage on the Patriots.
Follow Sean Sweeney on Twitter @MrSeanMSweeney