LITCHFIELD >> Lewis Mills got another chance against Northwestern and this time the Spartans didn’t let it slip away.
Behind the sharp shooting of Zack Ventres and some clutch free throws from Nate Cook, second-seeded Lewis Mills knocked off No. 1 Northwestern 59-55 in the Berkshire League Tournament final Friday night at Wamogo High School.
Ventres hit six 3-pointers and scored 20 points to lift Lewis Mills (16-6) to the title and give it its first win over Northwestern in three tries this season. Cook added 14 for Lewis Mills, which led both regular season meetings by double-digits only to lose both.
Steve McGrath scored 21 points for the Highlanders, who won the BL regular season title with a 16-2 league mark. Northwestern got within 56-55 with 21 seconds to play but Cook made three free throws in the final 17 seconds to ice it.
“We got a couple key hoops and a couple big rebounds,” Lewis Mills coach Todd Kozak said. “We told the team that Northwestern is a team of runs and we had to withstand them and we did that tonight and Zack was obviously lights out.”
Northwestern led 15-9 after the first quarter, but then Ventres and the Spartans got hot from deep. Ventures his three 3-pointers in the second quarter, while Ben Lewis drained a pair and Cook added one as well. The long-range shooting helped the Spartans build a 32-26 lead at the half.
“I came out hitting,” Ventres said. “Everyone was telling me before the game to shoot with confidence and I knew I needed to step up. It was a great feeling. When you’re out there and you just feel like you’re going to hit the next one and the next one, it’s great.”
Northwestern pulled within 35-34 early in the third, but Ventres got going again with back-to-back threes to force a Highlanders time out and give the Spartans a 41-34 lead halfway through the quarter.
Mills was up but everyone had seen this movie before, a Spartans lead turning into a comeback win for the Highlanders. It had already happened twice as Northwestern won the regular season meetings 44-41 on Jan. 6 and 56-51 on February 19. Mills was 3-4 after the first loss and the Highlanders clinched a share of the BL crown with the second win.
This time the Spartans made sure it didn’t happen again, but it wasn’t easy.
A three-point-play by Cook gave the Spartans a 51-42 lead halfway through the fourth and Lewis Mills was up 54-46 with 1:20 to go but Northwestern didn’t quit. Zach Tuxbury (11 points) converted a three-point-play and McGrath hit a three and the lead was down to 56-52 with 49 seconds to go.
Mills had a couple turnovers, missed a few free throws and Northwestern extended its defense and after McGrath hit a pair from the line with 21 seconds left Mills’ lead was down to 56-55.
Cook scored the final three points of the game from the line. He made a pair and then was fouled after McGrath missed on a drive in the lane. Cook then split a pair with seven seconds to go and the clock ran out and the Spartans had a long-awaited win over the Highlanders as well as the BL Tournament title.
“Coach was saying at the end of the game, not tonight,” Cook said. “We pulled together and didn’t want to let them come back and get another one from us. We just said we can’t let that happen again in the biggest game of the season. To get this one feel amazing.”
Now both teams turn their attention to the Class M state tournament. Mills, which went to the Class M semifinals last season, is the 10th seed and opens Monday at home against No. 23 Norwich Tech. Northwestern (18-4) is the No. 2 seed and hosts No. 31 Tolland. The Spartans and Highlanders could meet for a fourth time in the Class M quarterfinals.
“I thought we played hard but just came up a little short,” Northwestern coach Doug Sebach said. “Getting to the finals is great and it preps you for the tournament. Maybe we’ll be a little more hungry now.”
Lewis Mills 59, Northwestern 55
Lewis Mills 9 23 12 15 — 59
Northwestern 15 11 14 15 — 55
Lewis Mills 59
Justin Pease 1 2 5; Nate Cook 4 5 14; Trent Millum 1 1 3; Zach Ventres 7 0 20; Ben Lewis 2 4 10; Trevor Baker 3 1 7; Anthony Licata 0 0 0; Eric Miller 0 0 0; John Geissler 0 0 0; Grant McGregor 0 0 0; Lorenz Gunzl 0 0 0; Joe Neary 0 0 0. Totals 18 13 59
Ricky Persechino 5 3 14; Zach Tuxbury 3 5 11; Tony Case 1 0 3; Tim Kreh 1 0 2; Will Scharanberg 2 0 4; Zach Plitt 0 0 0; Stephen McGrath 7 4 21. Totals 19 12 55
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