WORCESTER— With a rematch against one of the toughest foes in the ABA, the Worcester 78’s came out firing, earning a 138-114 victory over the Jersey Express on Saturday night in Worcester. The 78’s improved to (10-4) overall with a six-game winning streak in tow, and still remain unbeaten coming into the new year.
“I was really happy with our effort,” said head coach Anthony Leonelli. “We played with a lot of energy. One-thru-twelve [on our roster] gave us something and I was really happy with it.”
Worcester had three players register 20 points or more, and six players reached at least double figures in scoring.
The 78’s were led by the hot hand of Sam Longwell (27 points), who knocked down (3) three-pointers in the second quarter and led his team with 19 first-half points.
“When (Longwell) gets rolling, he is hard to deal with,” Leonelli said. “He is just so in the flow of what we are doing, he is never hunting shots, he is so in the moment — he is a really good shooter.”
Worcester jumped out to a quick 20-8 lead in the first quarter off a pair of threes by Tony Gallo (22 points), as Gallo first knocked down a three from the wing, before knocking down an open three in transition off a Jersey Express turnover.
Longwell then received a beautiful tip pass from Jose Cruz Jr. underneath the basket, before knocking down a corner jumper to give the 78’s a 33-18 lead with two minutes left in the first quarter.
An embattled Mo Horton (16 points) got in the act in the second quarter, after Worcester held a 37-25 advantage following the first quarter.
Horton, converted an acrobatic over-the-head shot in the lane off an offensive rebound, giving the 78’s a 39-27 lead.
Jersey closed the gap to 39-36 with 8:01 left in the first half, however, Longwell would then knock down a pair of consecutive three-pointers, the last one being in transition to give Worcester a 52-41 lead with 4:47 left in the half.
78’s guard Kamahl Walker got back on track, netting (21 points), and added a beautiful spin move in the lane to put Worcester up by 11 points at 54-43.
“That’s the (Walker) we’ve been waiting to show up all night,” Leonelli said of Walker’s 21 points. “I love (Walker), he [contributes] even when he’s not playing his best, but tonight was the version of (Walker) we’ve been waiting all year to show up.”
Longwell would go on and knock down his third three of the quarter, off an inbounds pass, to give Worcester a comfortable 60-47 lead as the 78’s held a 67-53 advantage at the break.
Worcester swingman Avery King (15 points) got the 78’s going to start the second half as he knocked down a floater along the baseline, before Gallo went coast-to-coast for a layup to put Worcester up 71-53.
The Jersey Express, who beat the 78’s soundly on December 1, 161-130, and in the playoffs last year, would get as close as 89-78 with just over three minutes in the third quarter. Both Gallo and Walker would answer with three-balls to give Worcester a 95-78 lead.
“We knew coming in that (Jersey) likes to over play us a lot [on the defensive end],” said Walker after the game. “We knew they were going to face guard (Gallo) a lot, giving an opportunity for myself and Dmitri Floras (13 points) a chance to get to the hole.”
Worcester held a 105-86 lead after the third quarter before cruising to a 138-114 victory in the fourth, highlighted by a reverse dunk by newly signed guard Kwame Thompson (Brockton, Mass.).
“I thought (Thompson) showed a nice little bit there at the end,” Leonelli said. “He is someone we got in the mix, as he just returned from Italy.”
The Thompson signing was due to the loss of guard Lee Vazquez, who accepted a contract from a Puerto Rico professional team this past week.
“I am so excited for (Vazquez), no one works harder than (him),” Leonelli said. “Obviously I miss looking at the bench and pulling him in, but what a great opportunity for him, but that’s what we try to sell [to our players], we are a developmental program, and we want to move [these players] on.
The 78’s according to Leonelli have moved players to Puerto Rico, Spain, Germany, and Israel over the last three years to play professionally.
“It’s a real thrill for us, [when players receive contracts],” Leonelli said.
With Vazquez out of the lineup, Worcester will be turning to Walker and swingman King to pick up the scoring slack and defensive pressure for 48 minutes.
The 78’s have four games remaining on their regular season schedule, and three of those four games are at home, starting next Saturday as Worcester hosts the New England Outtatowners on February 16.
“We are trying to elevate our game and play hard the entire 48 minutes— we are getting closer,” Leonelli said. “We have a nice home stretch coming up, but I still think our best basketball is in front of us.”