NORTHBOROUGH, Mass. — As head coach Brian Doherty tells it, when the Algonquin boys varsity basketball team got in the huddle near the end of their game against Fitchburg on Thursday, "They said, 'We're not going to lose this game.'"
Despite falling behind by double digits in the first playoff game of the season, the Tomahawks rallied back to beat Fitchburg, 61-59.
Fitchburg didn't make it easy. It gave no quarter early in the game, holding Algonquin to a 15-8 lead in the first period. Then, as halftime approached, Fitchburg unleashed a volley of six three-pointers and jumped ahead, 30-24.
"They were hot," Doherty said of Fitchburg, "They were hitting some good shots. I told the guys before the game, if they start hitting their threes, it'll be a close game."
Stopping the three-point shots became Algonquin's biggest priority in the second half, Doherty said. "We put ball pressure on them."
By the end of the third quarter, the Tomahawks had cut their deficit to seven points, and, with audience noise levels threatening to blow the roof of the gymnasium, they opened the fourth quarter with a 10-point rally to retake the lead, 48-47.
Senior Brandon Lukoff led Algonquin with 21 points and 10 rebounds, which were key in those last, tense minutes. "He's a senior," Doherty said. "I asked the seniors to step up."
The team also benefited from a number of free throw opportunities. Sophomore Michael Stamas alone scored 10 points off free throws, while the Tomahawks overall picked up 17 points from the stripe.
Fitchburg took a brief lead once more before the Tomahawks sealed the deal. With about 20 seconds left, Algonquin sophomore A.J. Brodeur scored the winning basket, while Stamas added a free throw for the final score. Brodeur totaled 18 points and 17 rebounds for the game.
Fitchburg senior Charles Doss led his team with 16 points.
"A lot of this goes to the coach before me," Doherty said, referring to former head coach Chris Foy, who resigned last year after five seasons with the team. Doherty served as Foy's assistant coach for two seasons. "He instilled this toughness in them. My first call tonight will be to him."
Algonquin will face St. John's in Sunday's semifinals, held at WPI. St. John's beat St. Peter-Marian, 62-38, on Thursday. Sunday's game will start at 8 p.m.