Pembroke wins thriller over Pelham in title game rematch

By Nathaniel Ford

PEMBROKE – In front of a huge home crowd, Pembroke pulled away with a 55-54 victory over the visiting Pelham on Friday night. 

This was a highly anticipated matchup between two top teams in Division II. Not only was it a title rematch from last year, but both teams were undefeated coming into the contest. 

“Last year, we graduated nine seniors and four starters, and usually when you talk about something like that, you talk about a rebuild. Pembroke gets a retool,” said head coach Mike Donnell.

It seemed like a rebuild would be needed this season, but the Spartans have proved that is far from the truth. Led by All-State guard Joe Fitzgerald, this squad has picked up some huge wins, and they continued that tonight. 

Pembroke jumped out early, starting with a 7-2 run to put them in the lead. Pelham bounced right back and showed that it would take a battle to win this game. This five-point lead would be Pembroke’s largest until the fourth quarter.

Pelham’s Zach James, an All-State player last season, is averaging 26 points a game and is one of the top shooters in the state. He showed that early in this contest, knocking down three shots from beyond the arc. 

Along with James, Brady Hegan added 8 points of his own, and the Pythons led 19-16 heading into the second quarter. 

The second quarter was neck and neck the whole way. Pelham led early by five points, and following that, it was a one possession game for the rest of the quarter. The lead changed multiple times, and neither team could string together any big runs. 

A big loss for Pelham was standout guard Dom Herrling, who got into foul trouble and did not play the final five minutes of the half. Herrling is one of the top defenders in the state, and he is an outstanding point guard who makes tons of winning plays. 

Even without Herrling on the floor, Pelham did not roll over, and they were able to stay competitive. Behind a team effort, they were able to hold their lead and entered the break winning 32-31.

In the third quarter, James exploded for Pelham and carried them offensively. He knocked down two triples and scored the team’s first 11 points of the half. This extended the lead to nine points, which was the most by either team in the contest. 

“Our team is very resilient. These guys have been playing together for a very long time, and they showed their poise and never broke,” said Donnell. 

With a player like James starting to get hot and the Pelham lead extended to nearly double digits, it was looking like they might start running away with it. Instead, the Spartans remained composed and stayed in the game.

They closed on a 6-1 run, highlighted by a nice bucket by Fitzgerald to end the quarter. While they still trailed, they cut the lead down, and Pelhem held just a 44-40 lead entering the fourth.

Pembroke’s stellar defense was on full display in the fourth, holding their opponents scoreless through the first four minutes of the quarter and without a field goal for the first five. During this time, they were able to take the lead for themselves behind a couple of baskets from Fitzgerald. 

With two minutes left and a four point lead, Jacob Mather hit a huge three pointer for the Spartans, which looked like it could be the dagger. The crowd had started to get loud in the fourth, and this shot, which forced a Pelham timeout, almost brought the roof down.

Coming out of the timeout, Pelham made it a game again. Herrling got a basket inside, and then they forced a Pembroke turnover. Herrling came down and got another basket, cutting the lead to just three points. 

Pelham was so great to end games last year, and it looked like they were about to show up again and steal the game in Pembroke. However, they suffered a major blow with 50 seconds left, as Herrling got called for a reach and fouled out of the game. 

The Pythons fouled Fitzgerald, who made his first free throw. On the second, the Spartans were called for a violation. Pelham came down the floor, and Peter Hemmerdinger got free for an open look at the top of the key. He knocked down the triple and cut the lead to just one.

Pelham fouled again, and this time, Pembroke missed both at the line. The Pythons grabbed the rebound, and in transition, Hegan got free for a layup inside, which gave them the lead with around 30 seconds left.

Pembroke did not call a timeout, and they got up the floor quickly. Fitzgerald dribbled down the floor, took the game into his own hands, and drove to the hoop and got a layup. Star players need to make big plays down the stretch, and that is exactly what he did. 

On the other end, Hegan was fouled on the floor with four seconds left, giving the Pythons a baseline inbound. They found Justin Bowlan with an open look in the corner, but he was not able to connect on the triple, and Pembroke escaped with a one point victory. 

Pembroke proved their record was no fluke, avenging their loss last season and defending their home court. This squad is led by Fitzgerald, who was the only starter returning from last year’s team. Donnell speaks very highly of him, who is one of the captains on the team.

“He has really grown from his sophomore year. He’s always guarding their best player. He leads the team, and the boys know that if he doesn’t have a shot, he will find them. He’s a kid every coach wants to play for them,” he said.

Fitzgerald led the way for the Spartans with a game-high 25 points, including the game winner. Evan Berkeley (11) and Devin Riel (10) each added double figures as well. 

Pelham was paced by 22 points from Zack James. Dom Herrling and Brady Hegan scored 10 points each. They fall to 4-1 and look to bounce back next week in a massive game against 6-0 Manchester West at home on Tuesday. 

Pembroke moves to 4-0 on the season, and they look to continue their undefeated season on the road against Bishop Brady on Tuesday. 

Check out the full photo gallery by John Scott Sherburne…