The Milford High School boys basketball team had a built-in excuse for not winning Saturday’s Class I championship game against Pembroke Academy.
It didn’t matter; the Spartans used that excuse to motivate them instead of letting it bring them down and won, 52-46.
Milford was missing its starting point guard, Mike Mitchell, a player who handles the ball perhaps more than any of the other four players on the court combined. The junior wasn’t able to play because of a school suspension the day before.
Forget the reason for Mitchell’s absence for a moment. If it had been for an injury or illness instead of discipline, it still amounts to the same thing: the Spartans were playing without a key contributor.
Teams that win championships find a way around a problem like that, and that’s exactly what Milford did.
“It definitely motivated us,” Mike O’Loughlin said. “We had to win this for Mikey. He already feels awful about it. People make mistakes and it happens.
“He was sorry, you could tell. If we had lost, it wouldn’t have been his fault.”
Milford coach Dan Murray didn’t want to see something like that fall on one of his players again. A year ago, it was O’Loughlin who missed a pair of free throws in a quarterfinal game against Pembroke that would have given Milford a lead. Instead, the Spartans ended up losing by three.
That stayed with O’Loughlin, and he said as much when commenting on the free throws he made near the end of Milford’s semifinal win over Portsmouth. The Pembroke fans certainly reminded him during the championship game, chanting “just like last year” when he went to the free throw line in the fourth quarter.
“Last year, Mike (O’Loughlin) had those two missed free throws,” Murray said. “We said (Friday), we cannot let Mike (Mitchell) have this on his shoulders all year, that he’s the reason we didn’t win a championship. We dedicated ourselves more than we would have.”
While the players turned that into a positive in their minds, O’Loughlin and Jamie Holder filled the role of ballhandler just fine, despite only having one practice to prepare.
“We had about an hour and a half, and the first hour was a waste, trying to figure out who could play where,” Murray said of that practice. “We had to play people out of positions.
“When we practiced, we had Mike bringing the ball up. It was scary. It was like a bull in a China shop, putting his head down and going this way and that way. We switched Jamie over. When Jamie needed a break, (O’Loughlin) was able to do it.”
Although Holder and O’Loughlin filled in nicely, the Milford crowd certainly didn’t forget the point guard who helped get the team there. During the awards ceremony, the crowd’s loudest cheer came when Mitchell’s name was announced.
“We did it for you, kid,” Murray said when asked what he would tell Mitchell. “He’s been a great leader and he does everything for this team.”