WORCESTER — The Worcester 78’s and many of their players returned to their basketball roots in the heart of Worcester, with an exhibition at the Friendly House neighborhood center on Sunday afternoon. The 78’s walked out winners both on and off the court with their 120-103 victory over the Western Mass. Zombies.
Sunday’s exhibition was a fundraiser for the Friendly House neighborhood center on Wall St. as the 78’s and several local players savored the moment of returning home to their youth basketball days.
“It felt good to be back,” said Worcester forward Maurice Horton. “To have family and friends step in to watch me play here was nice and I enjoyed it and had a lot of fun.”
The game from the opening tip didn’t feel like an exhibition game as both teams got after one another, with Worcester mustering only a 47-45 lead at intermission.
The 78’s trailed most of the first quarter and found themselves down 19-18 after the first frame yet gave the home crowd something to cheer about when Jose Cruz Jr. finished off an alley oop from Naadir Tharpe.
Tharpe finished the game as the 78’s high scorer with 25 points, reigning NBA three-pointers from behind the arc and spreading the Zombie defense as thin as possible.
“Coming back to Friendly House and its atmosphere was great,” Tharpe said after the win. “I’ve gotten a lot of wins on this court.”
Worcester opened up the game at the start of the third quarter, on a 15-7 run as Zack Valliere finished off a pass from Horton with a thunderous dunk with 6:51 left to put the 78’s up 62-52.
The 78’s also saw the return of Lee Vasquez from an upper body injury, as the guard finished the game with 20 points, and impressed his coach with a steal and three-pointer to put Worcester up 70-56 in the third quarter.
“Having (Vasquez) back is a huge boost for us,” said Worcester head coach Anthony Leonelli. “He has infectious enthusiasm and can really shoot the ball and make plays for others.”
Tharpe would add a corner three to put Worcester up 77-60 with 1:16 left in the third quarter, before finishing off the third with a layup in transition to put his team up 82-67 heading into the fourth.
Worcester also had significant contributions from Domonique Bull, who had 18 points, and Jerry Buchanon, who also chipped in with 18 points.
Bull opened the fourth quarter with a bucket plus the foul, as he converted the free throw to put the 78’s up by 18.
Buchanon finished off a feed from Horton underneath the hoop and added a 12-foot jumper to put Worcester up 89-71, as they held on the rest of the way for the 120-103 victory.
“We played hard— which is good,” Leonelli said. “Even though the game doesn’t reflect it in the standings, the guys played hard, and that was exciting.”
It was also exciting for players to see and reunite with friends and former coaches and mentors from the Friendly House youth basketball community.
“To be back with Coach Denny — its just always good to play back here,” Tharpe said. “My family is here, and my daughter is here, it’s a good feeling.”
It was also a good feeling to give back to a community and neighborhood center that has always met the needs of the local Worcester residents.
“It was a great event for our community,” Leonelli said, “so many of our guys came up through Friendly House, to be able to give back to them during the holiday season, feels really good.”
Four of the next six games are at home for Worcester, as they host the Oneonta Octane on January 5th at Worcester State University.
“We have off for the holidays, then we have 12 games and eight of them are at home,” Leonelli said, “so we really need to make some hay on the back end.”