MIAA boys basketball: Defense propels Pioneer past Athol, into Div. 5 Elite Eight for 2nd consecutive year (PHOTOS)

Pioneer’s Kurt Redeker (3) drives between Athol defenders Ethan Goodwin (44) and Colby Goodwin (11) during the host Panthers’ 42-32 victory in the MIAA Division 5 Round of 16 on Tuesday night at Messer Gymnasium in Northfield.

Pioneer’s Kurt Redeker (3) drives between Athol defenders Ethan Goodwin (44) and Colby Goodwin (11) during the host Panthers’ 42-32 victory in the MIAA Division 5 Round of 16 on Tuesday night at Messer Gymnasium in Northfield. STAFF PHOTO/JEFF LAJOIE

Pioneer’s Kurt Redeker drives against Athol’s Angel Castillo during the host Panthers’ 42-32 victory in the MIAA Division 5 Round of 16 on Tuesday night at Messer Gymnasium in Northfield.

Pioneer’s Kurt Redeker drives against Athol’s Angel Castillo during the host Panthers’ 42-32 victory in the MIAA Division 5 Round of 16 on Tuesday night at Messer Gymnasium in Northfield. STAFF PHOTO/JEFF LAJOIE

Pioneer’s Brayden Thayer (10) tries to get a shot up in a pack of Athol defenders during the host Panthers’ 42-32 victory in the MIAA Division 5 Round of 16 on Tuesday night at Messer Gymnasium in Northfield.

Pioneer’s Brayden Thayer (10) tries to get a shot up in a pack of Athol defenders during the host Panthers’ 42-32 victory in the MIAA Division 5 Round of 16 on Tuesday night at Messer Gymnasium in Northfield. STAFF PHOTO/JEFF LAJOIE

Athol’s Ethan Bacigalupo (3) tries to haul in a rebound against Pioneer during the host Panthers’ 42-32 victory in the MIAA Division 5 Round of 16 on Tuesday night at Messer Gymnasium in Northfield.

Athol’s Ethan Bacigalupo (3) tries to haul in a rebound against Pioneer during the host Panthers’ 42-32 victory in the MIAA Division 5 Round of 16 on Tuesday night at Messer Gymnasium in Northfield. STAFF PHOTO/JEFF LAJOIE

Athol’s Angel Castillo drives against Pioneer’s Alex McClelland during the host Panthers’ 42-32 victory in the MIAA Division 5 Round of 16 on Tuesday night at Messer Gymnasium in Northfield.

Athol’s Angel Castillo drives against Pioneer’s Alex McClelland during the host Panthers’ 42-32 victory in the MIAA Division 5 Round of 16 on Tuesday night at Messer Gymnasium in Northfield. STAFF PHOTO/JEFF LAJOIE

Athol’s Ethan Bacigalupo (3) pulls up for a runner in the lane while defended by Pioneer’s Brayden Thayer (10) and Hugh Cyhowski (11) during the host Panthers’ 42-32 victory in the MIAA Division 5 Round of 16 on Tuesday night at Messer Gymnasium in Northfield.

Athol’s Ethan Bacigalupo (3) pulls up for a runner in the lane while defended by Pioneer’s Brayden Thayer (10) and Hugh Cyhowski (11) during the host Panthers’ 42-32 victory in the MIAA Division 5 Round of 16 on Tuesday night at Messer Gymnasium in Northfield. STAFF PHOTO/JEFF LAJOIE

Athol’s Colby Goodwin (11) defends Pioneer’s Kurt Redeker during the host Panthers’ 42-32 victory in the MIAA Division 5 Round of 16 on Tuesday night at Messer Gymnasium in Northfield.

Athol’s Colby Goodwin (11) defends Pioneer’s Kurt Redeker during the host Panthers’ 42-32 victory in the MIAA Division 5 Round of 16 on Tuesday night at Messer Gymnasium in Northfield. STAFF PHOTO/JEFF LAJOIE

Athol’s Ben Kearney (1) tries to make a pass while defended by Pioneer’s Kurt Redeker (3) and Hugh Cyhowski (11) during the host Panthers’ 42-32 victory in the MIAA Division 5 Round of 16 on Tuesday night at Messer Gymnasium in Northfield.

Athol’s Ben Kearney (1) tries to make a pass while defended by Pioneer’s Kurt Redeker (3) and Hugh Cyhowski (11) during the host Panthers’ 42-32 victory in the MIAA Division 5 Round of 16 on Tuesday night at Messer Gymnasium in Northfield. STAFF PHOTO/JEFF LAJOIE

Athol’s Ben Kearney (10) during the host Panthers’ 42-32 victory in the MIAA Division 5 Round of 16 on Tuesday night at Messer Gymnasium in Northfield.

Athol’s Ben Kearney (10) during the host Panthers’ 42-32 victory in the MIAA Division 5 Round of 16 on Tuesday night at Messer Gymnasium in Northfield. STAFF PHOTO/JEFF LAJOIE

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 03-05-2024 8:58 PM

NORTHFIELD — Late in the second quarter, No. 14 Athol found itself down just two points after cutting into No. 3 Pioneer’s once eight-point lead.

During the next stoppage, Panthers head coach Scott Thayer belted out “everybody relax” to his team – feeling the tension of Tuesday night’s MIAA Division 5 Round of 16 matchup was getting to his team.

They responded accordingly.

Pioneer ripped off the game’s next eight points and took a 23-13 lead into the break. Although it certainly wasn’t the prettiest of games, the Panthers defense shut down a pesky Bears offense and walked out of Messer Gymnasium with a 42-32 victory. Pioneer, which advanced to the Elite Eight for the second year in a row, will host the winner of Wednesday’s Round of 16 game between No. 6 Drury and No. 11 Rockport in the state quarterfinals — likely on Friday night.

“Survive and advance, right?” Thayer said. “That’s what it’s about. Defensively, we did the job. You give up 32 points, you’re gonna give yourself a shot to win the game. We shoot 3-for-16 from 3, and we still win the game. [Athol] kind of dictated the energy and effort. Even though we had the lead, they brought the fight. Our defensive fundamentals just didn’t allow them to get in the paint at all.”

That stingy Pioneer defense held Athol to single digits in three of the four quarters, with a 10-point third quarter being the only exception.

The Bears scored six points in the first frame and seven in the second, struggling to get inside the paint with the length of Josh Wood, Kurt Redeker and Hugh Cyhowski bothering Athol’s slashers.

In the opening frame, the Panthers attacked the basket relentlessly, with Redeker and Wood combining to shoot seven free throws in the first eight minutes of action. On the other side of the court, Athol was only getting heavily contested perimeter looks aside from two Ben Kearney layups.

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Both teams struggled to take care of the ball, perhaps the nerves of a high-pressure playoff game taking over, as the two sides racked up the miscues early on.

“We had a tough time scoring,” Athol head coach Brian Patria said. “We had our share of turnovers, but we created some turnovers as well. We just couldn’t capitalize on them turning the ball over. Every time we did that, we either missed a shot or turned it back over. And in the half-court offense, we struggled a little bit. Credit to them. They’re a good defensive team.”

Pioneer’s aforementioned run before halftime gave it a double-digit lead, and over the final 16 minutes, the closest Athol ever got was nine points.

When the Bears forced a miss, the majority of the time it was followed by a Pioneer offensive rebound. The Panthers out-rebounded Athol 30-19, and couldn’t keep Redeker and Co. off the boards consistently enough to get back in that two-possession range.

“We thought we had an advantage there,” Thayer said of the rebounding margin. “We thought we could attack the glass and get some offensive rebounds. I thought we should’ve done a better job of it. We knew we would score enough points doing that, it was whether we could limit them enough.”

Each time Pioneer stretched its lead to a dozen, Kearney responded with timely buckets to keep the Bears close enough for the Panthers to worry. Kearney poured in a game-high 20 points, with the junior scoring 11 of them in the second half.

Toward the latter portion of the season, he’s been Athol’s go-to guy on the offensive end.

“He’s stepped it up in so many ways the last couple of games,” Patria said of Kearney. “In a game like tonight, where you’re playing against A-caliber players, he showed that he’s on that level. I’m looking forward to having him come back next year.”

Another single-digit Bears fourth quarter courtesy of Pioneer’s defensive aggression sent the Panthers into the Elite Eight in consecutive seasons.

Having already lost to potential-quarterfinal opponent Drury twice this season, Thayer wants his team to flush Tuesday’s performance and get ready for the road ahead.

“Just to understand you came out with a victory,” Thayer said of his message to the team. “We know we played subpar, but defensively, again, we did what we’re supposed to do. You’re gonna have one of these games throughout a tournament, and tonight, we were fortunate enough to move on.”

Wood notched a team-high 13 points to lead Pioneer’s offense, with Redeker tossing in 10 points and a dozen rebounds in a double-double effort. Brayden Thayer scored all seven of his points in the third quarter while Cyhowski and Alex McClelland chipped in six points apiece in the Panthers victory.

As for Athol, Angel Castillo put up seven points to assist Kearney’s 20, while Colby Goodwin (three points) and Ray Castine (two points) rounded out the Bears scoring.

Following the game, Patria took time to recognize his four seniors and the impact they had on turning the Athol boys basketball program around – accomplishing several firsts throughout the season.

“Those four seniors, Angel, Colby, Ray and Caleb, how they’ve represented Athol basketball with such class and hard work, we thank them for that,” Patria said. “They’re just amazing young men. It’s tough right now, because the emotions are there after a tough loss to end the season, but in the end, we’re gonna celebrate this season and look back at everything. We were league champs for the first time in 22 years, we got our first win in the Western Mass. tournament, won our first tournament game with the new state alignment – a lot of firsts for us. We’ve come a long way.”