Paxton, Mass. – In a matchup of arguably the two best players in Central Massachusetts collegiate basketball, visiting Clark University got 25 points and 13 rebounds from Brian Vayda and the Cougars rallied for an improbable 71-68 win over Anna Maria on Tuesday evening.
Vayda and his counterpart – the AMCATS' Anthony Click (Springfield, Mass.) – went mano-a-mano for most of the contest, but it was Clark's other players who proved to be the difference down the stretch as the Cougars improved to 3-0 for the first time since the 1990-91 season.
Things opened up as if it was going to Click and Anna Maria's night as the hosts raced out to a 13-0 lead in the game's first five minutes.
The AMCATS still held a 32-23 halftime edge courtesy of 52 percent shooting and a defense that held Clark to just 30 percent in the opening 20 minutes, including a 2-for-10 performance from behind the arc.
It all changed in the second half as Vayda began the final 20 minutes by scoring eight of the Cougars first 11 points, but with nearly four minutes gone, Anna Maria remained in front, 41-34.
That lead ballooned to 13 following a shot-clock buzzer-beating three from Click and then, after a stolen inbounds pass, Click converted a conventional three point play, bringing the home crowd to its feet.
Undeterred, the Cougars embarked on a run sparked by back-to-back steals and baskets from the emerging Nicholas DaPrato (Marshfield, Mass.) and some excellent free throw shooting from D.J. Bailey (Palmer, Mass.) that cut the lead to 55-51 with less than eight minutes to play.
After Marcus Armstrong (Malden, Mass.) dropped in his second three-pointer in a two minute span, the Cougars had inched to within 64-63 with 3:31 left. Vayda then put Clark ahead for the first time when he made a pair of free throws with 2:50 remaining.
Click then missed a jumper and Armstrong knocked in another three-point bomb, upping the Cougar advantage to 68-64.
After a few empty possessions and a single free throw by Click, Hugh Daye (Worcester, Mass.) collected a steal and raced down court and found Brad Peterson (North Kingstown, R.I.) open for a layup. But Bailey recorded his fourth block of the night, erasing his attempt and Jake Gubitose (Fiskdale, Mass.) picked up the rebound and made the subsequent free throws, pushing the Clark edge to 70-65.
Click continued his offensive exploits, converting another three-point play to breathe life into the AMCATS, getting them to 70-68 with less than a minute to play.
An empty trip by Clark put the ball back in Click's hands with less than 30 seconds left on the clock. One-on-one with Armstrong at the top of the key, Click went to his patented left-to-right crossover, but Armstrong was expecting it and poked it away long enough to make his go-ahead three-point attempt rushed and it clanged off the rim and was hauled in by Vayda.
He then went to the other end and split a pair of free throws, leaving the door open for an Anna Maria miracle, but Peterson's half court heave wasn't taken in time, completing the incredible comeback.
After shooting 30 percent in the first half, Clark connected on 65 percent of its shots in the second half and held a slight 34-30 edge in the rebounding column.
In addition to Vayda's exceptional performance, Armstrong scored all of his career-high 14 points in the second half, including going 4-for-6 from behind the arc. In his last two games, Armstrong is 10-for-15 from the field.
Bailey went 9-for-10 from the charity stripe in notching 15 points, four rebounds and the aforementioned four blocks.
DaPrato, meanwhile, had his best day as a collegian, finishing with 15 points on 6-for-7 shooting in just 21 minutes.
The AMCATS were paced by Click, who poured in a game-high 31 points on an efficient 12-for-19 shooting. He added seven rebounds and four steals in his 33 minutes of action.
Javier Bristol (Haverhill, Mass.) chipped in 13 points and a team-best nine rebounds, while Peterson, who was saddled with foul trouble for most of the game, posted ten points and four rebounds in just 19 minutes.
The Cougars have a week off until their next contest – a road trip to Brandeis University, before opening up their home slate next Thursday against Worcester State.