TOWNSEND — A sad sight for North Middlesex boys basketball fans was senior point guard Kevin Marciano on the bench, shelved by an injury when the Patriots hosted a red-hot Gardner squad. But veteran North Middlesex mentor Erik Dellasanta takes the half-full approach and knows that the absence of the Patriots emotional leader provides opportunities to step up for other players.

That’s what happened in the Patriots’ hard-fought 61-56 win. Four North Middlesex players scored in double figures, led by Brian Magee with 13 points, three rebounds and two steals, followed by Francis Phillips with 12 points, C.J Flavin with 11 points and six rebounds, and David Lorden with 10 points, nine rebounds and two steals. Stephen Valacer stepped in at the point and ran the offense superbly, backed up by Ryan Deluca, and Dylan Kimbar (five points, five rebounds) added muscle and hustle off the bench.

“Gardner was hot coming in and this win puts us one step closer to the Districts,” said Dellasanta. “Francis has been playing well of late. He is decisive offensively and stepped in and filled a role tonight. Stephen protected the ball well, is an excellent ballhandler and has played well the past two games. C.J just makes big plays. He was our MVP tonight. He hit a key three-pointer and took two big charges. This was a big win against a hot team.”

The Patriots got off to a quick start, building a 19-7 lead after one quarter with solid efforts in all departments. They finished the quarter with a pretty 14-2 run after the game was tied at 5-5. Phillips came off the bench and contributed immediately with a strong drive followed by a 17-footer, and Kimbar also provided a lift with solid rebounding, a lay-up off a nice pass from Valacer, and a pair of free throws.

North Middlesex substituted liberally early and it paid off, while the Wildcats hurt themselves with poor shot selection.

Led by Garret Shetrawski (29 points, seven rebounds) the Wildcats inched closer throughout the second quarter, closing to within five points on three occasions, the third at 30-25 on a pair of free throws by Shetrawski, but Valacer’s two late freebies sent the Patriots to halftime with a 32-25 advantage.

The second half consisted of Gardner making mini-runs to inch closer and the Patriots answering to keep a small lead intact. In the final minute, Lorden hauled down an offensive rebound and converted to give North Middlesex a 47-39 advantage, but Shetrawski answered with a trey to make it 47-42 entering the fourth quarter.

Flavin opened the final quarter by hitting a 15-footer, but the Wildcats got a lay-up by Jean Sainvil and a three-pointer by Shetrawski to claw within 49-47, the closest the visitors had been since the first quarter.

“Shetrawski is a great shooter and we left him open too many times,” said Dellasanta. Shetrawski scored 20 points in the second half.

North Middlesex answered with a free throw by Flavin, followed by a crucial trey by Magee to extend the lead to six at 53-47.

Less then a minute later, Flavin drained a three-pointer to up the lead to seven, but Gardner wouldn’t go away. A three-pointer by Shetrawski and a put-back by Sainvil made it 56-54.

A single free throw by Magee and two free throws by Valacer rebuilt the lead to five. After Sainvil made it a one-possession game, Magee iced it with a pair of freebies.