Before a packed house on Saturday night at Worcester State University, the Worcester 78’s (3-3) fourth quarter rally fell a bit short, as the Western Mass. Zombies went 7-for-10 at the charity stripe during the final three minutes for the 135-129 victory.
The Worcester 78’s had cut an 18-point fourth quarter deficit down to 123-120 when 3:15 remaining, when the Zombies’ Tylon Smith (24 points) went to the foul line and knocked down a pair of free throws to extend the Western Mass. lead to five points.
Worcester’s Naadir Tharpe (29 points) missed a three-point attempt, before Smith got himself to the line for another pair of free throws to extend the lead to 127-120 with 2:55 left in the game.
“We settled for a lot of shots, we’re confident shooters, that’s what we do,” said leading scorer Tony Gallo, who had 33 points. “We shoot a lot of threes, we need to adjust and get to the hoop.”
After the Smith free throws, Gallo drove to the hoop for a lay-up to cut the deficit to 127-122 with 2:27 left.
After two more Western Mass. free-throws, Worcester’s Sam Longwell (11 points) missed a three from the corner and Mo Horton (12 points) got stripped underneath the basket.
“They’ve given us trouble the last couple of years,” Worcester head coach Anthony Leonelli said. “They know what we like to do, and they like to take us out of it.”
Western Mass. went back to the free-throw line only to miss both shots, giving the 78’s an opportunity to make it a two-possession game.
Worcester’s Scotty Tavares-Taylor (20 points) did exactly that, knocking down a three with 1:45 left to cut the lead to 131-125.
Tavares-Taylor wasn’t done there, after a Western Mass. turnover, Tavares-Taylor got himself to the line and converted one-of-two free-throws, to cut the deficit to five points with just over a minute remaining.
After a defensive stop for Worcester, a questionable loose ball foul call on Horton underneath the basket gave Western Mass. back the ball.
“I felt Saturday fell a lot on me,” Leonelli said, after being ejected in the second quarter for arguing calls. “I can’t put my assistant in that position [at the end of the game].”
Horton redeemed himself however, with a lay-up off a quick turnover by Longwell, who came up with the steal, before Gallo found Horton underneath the basket, to make it a 131-129 game.
Western Mass. would add a put back off a rebound, to make it a 133-129, as Gallo then missed a three-pointer from the top of the key with 24-seconds left.
Two more free-throws by Western Mass. made it 135-129, as Longwell missed a three-pointer with 15 seconds left, to seal the final score and the 6-point victory for the Zombies.
After the game, Coach Leonelli was pleased with the way his team fought its way back from an 101-83 deficit after the third quarter.
“I was thrilled with the energy they put together in the fourth quarter,” Leonelli said. “We can’t switch it on and off.”
Worcester had come out in front of the home crowd for the first time since November 10, with new uniforms and a sense of urgency as they jumped out to an early 9-0 lead.
Longwell started the game with a three from the wing off a Horton steal, while Horton converted on a bucket plus a free-throw to make the score 6-0.
Tavares-Taylor then knocked down a three from the wing and the crowd of 500 were rocking the Worcester State University gym for the hometown Worcester 78’s.
Worcester’s Jose Cruz Jr. (7 points) set the crowd in a frenzy with three dunks on the night, and two consecutive dunks in the fourth quarter to spark the comeback as a Tharpe three from the top of the key made it a 123-120 game.
“[The crowd] was fantastic, I’ve played in different countries, and I’ve played at the Division 1 level, [and the crowd] had energy from the beginning to end, that inspired me,” Gallo said after the game.
Despite holding a 37-36 lead after one quarter, Western Mass. jumped out to a 71-59 advantage at the break, outscoring the 78’s 35-22 in the second quarter as they went on a 23-11 run to close out the half.
“They had a couple of new guys we hadn’t seen, and played out of their mind, and they made a lot of shots early on, when you let a good team get rolling, it’s hard to set that back,” Leonelli said.