MIKE WILKINSON scored a team-high 23 points in a road win over Melrose on Tuesday night.

(Dan Pawlowski Photo)

By DAN PAWLOWSKI

MELROSE — Momentum is a funny thing in basketball.

When you have it, especially on your home court, it sometimes feels irrevocable.

The truth is, it only takes one instant, one play, for momentum to become a turncoat.

The Melrose High boys’ basketball team welcomed momentum to its side for most of the final three minutes against Wakefield on Tuesday night, cutting a 57-50 Warrior lead to 60-58. After the Red Raiders got a stop, they called timeout with the ball and 12 seconds left to tie or take the lead. It felt inevitable.

In-bounding the ball from half court directly in front of a great mix of rowdy fans from both towns, Melrose opted for the typically open backcourt pass to a guard who would then bring the ball up and run a play. It was an unexpected time for momentum to turn.

Anticipating the pass perfectly, Wakefield’s De’Ari Burton tipped it free and recovered for the type of steal that John Havlicek (and Johnny Most) would be proud of. The sophomore eventually dribbled under the hoop to buy some time for his teammates to catch up and kicked it to senior captain Andrew Quinn (19 points) who snapped it over to junior Mike Wilkinson (23 points) for an easy layup as the seconds ticked away to seal a clutch rivalry game win 62-58. It felt even sweeter for the Warriors as they evened the season series at 1-1 and improved their record to 8-6 overall, just two wins away from qualifying for the state tournament.

Despite the nail-biting finish, Wakefield never trailed in this one. Wilkinson hit a 3-pointer, one of 9 triples for Wakefield, to stake the road Warriors to an early 7-0 lead. Quinn then connected on his first of four 3’s to make it 10-1 and Wilkinson, who dropped 8 of his team-high 23 in the opening quarter, followed on the next possession with another long ball, quickly making friends with that momentum thing to help set the tone in a game that Wakefield desperately wanted. That became evident in the second quarter with offensive rebounding, but in the first, it was all about the shooting as junior Ethan Margolis connected on two more 3’s to push the lead to 19-10 after one.

Margolis, junior John Porter and junior Ian Dixon went to work on the glass early in the 2nd, the backbreakers coming on multiple second chances after free throw misses, a no-no for any coach including Melrose boss Danny Burns who called timeout after Margolis went right back up with one of those rebounds to give Wakefield a 22-12 lead.

Melrose center Cam Lippie, who dominated in the post to the tune of a game-high 25 points, came out of the timeout with a well-executed drop step and a bucket that would jumpstart the Red Raiders who eventually cut the deficit to 23-19 late in the half.

Wakefield senior captain Jeff DiFazio (7 points) hit a much-needed 3-ball to push the lead back to seven and Wakefield eventually took a 28-22 lead into the break.

The Warriors won the third quarter by a count of 19-15. Wilkinson got his mid range jumper and drives to the hoop going in this frame with 8 points while Quinn hit two more 3’s on his way to 7 points in the quarter.

Despite the strong shooting, it was a defensive play that caused the most applause in the quarter from the Wakefield bench and a growing contingent of Warrior students in a road Red Sea, provided by Porter who drew a charge on Lippie. That play was sandwiched around a tough drive and finish by Wilkinson and a Quinn bomb from the top of the key to bust the Red Raider zone and give Wakefield a 40-29 lead. The 3rd ended with a score of 47-37 Wakefield.

The home team’s fourth quarter comeback was thanks in large part to 8 points from Zach Federico who sunk two 3’s in the frame and 6 points from a consistent Lippie who scored 8 in the first, 5 in the second and 6 in each of the final two quarters.

Wilkinson’s hard work and willingness to put his body on the line led to multiple free throws which helped his team maintain the lead before Burton’s clutch steal.

The Warriors broke their tie with Melrose to take sole possession of 3rd in the Middlesex League’s Freedom Division. Wakefield has a 7-6 league record, just a half game behind Watertown (7-5) who they will meet in a rematch on Feb. 11. Before that, the Warriors will travel to Stoneham on Friday night at 6 p.m. If they beat the 2-14 Spartans it would set up quite the showdown with first place Burlington (10-3 league record) on Tuesday night at the Charbonneau Field House.

A win over Stoneham and another one against the Red Devils would officially punch Wakefield’s ticket to the tourney.