NATICK — Revenge looked like it would not only be swift for the Newton North basketball team, but relatively easy as well. It was anything but.
After building a 23-point lead early in the second half against a Natick team that dealt them their first loss the previous night, the Tigers had to hold off a furious comeback bid by the Redhawks to escape with 63-59 victory on Friday night.
“Playing with a lead isn’t easy,” said Newton North coach Paul Connolly. “I was trying to get the kids to imagine that this gym is packed and the crowd is screaming and they are going to make a run. We made just enough plays to win.”
Newton North (6-1) had to absorb a 20-0 run by the hosts as Natick cut the lead to three on four occasions, the last with 13.3 seconds to play, but Florian Kuechen’s free throw with 6.9 left sealed the win
Kuechen was one of three Tigers in double-figures with 14 points. Marat Belhouchet paced North with 15 points while Kyle Bovell had 10 of his 12 in the second half for Newton North, which was without a pair of starters in Jose Padilla and Holland Hargens.
It was a second straight monster night for Natick super sophomore Ryan Mela. After pouring in 30 points in the first meeting, Mela appeared contained with five points in the first half. But he exploded for 23 after the break — converting an amazing four basket-and-fouls — for a game-high 28 points to keep the Redhawks (3-2) in it.
“It’s tough to keep the ball out of that kid’s hands,” said Connolly of Mela. “He’s so talented, if that game goes another minute …”
North held Natick to one field goal in the first quarter and led 33-17 at the break, which it quickly extended to 40-17 with 5:50 left in the third quarter. But the Redhawks held them scoreless the rest of the third and ripped off 20 straight, including 13 from Mela and an energizing dunk from Joe Connolly.
Natick could not get over the hump, however. Bovell had a trio of pretty drives down the stretch at key moments and North got clutch shots from Kuechen and Jason Antonellis to keep the Redhawks at bay just long enough.
“They thought we were going to quit and we just kept fighting,” said Bovell.