CHELSEA, Mass. -- St. John's Prep head coach Sean Connolly was reminded of his team's 18-2 run to start the nightcap of Tuesday's slate of games at the BABC Holiday Classic, and offered some pointed praise.
"We've been disappointed with our defense early on in the season, and we came out and played a lot better defense today," he said following his Eagles' 69-60 win over the Titans, which puts them in Thursday's finals. The Eagles also beat New Mission in the opening round of the "Class A" division last year's BABC tournament.
Down the other end, New Mission head coach Cory McCarthy was reminded of the start, and offered one of his trademark long, exaggerated groans.
"They kept five guys in the paint, and they dared us to shoot the ball," he said. "And the problem was, we couldn't stretch the floor."
Losing one of their leading scorers Percio Gomez (18 points per game) for disciplinary reasons, and playing star forward Isshiah Coleman for less than 20 minutes due to foul trouble, didn't help matters. But it was domination on both ends of the floor to start the game for Prep (4-0), which opened the game in a sagging man-to-man defense aimed at filling the lanes to force perimeter shots from the Titans (3-1) and taking away dribble-drive penetration.
When the Titans did try to go inside, the Eagles were usually in proper position for drawing contact and using aggression against them; three charges were called on Mission in the opening stanza.
"We were scared of them penetrating, so we really wanted to get the help defense in, and make them have to beat us from the outside," Connolly said. "We did a good of helping up, and stepping in and taking charges."
It was very efficient to start, as the Eagles led 18-2 after one quarter and 37-22 at the break. Mission stormed back in the fourth quarter with a 15-5 run, cutting the Eagles' lead to 56-53 on a Leroy Hamilton (16 points) layup from the baseline with 3:51 to go. But the Prep was particularly efficient in free throws in the fourth quarter to ice it, with the Eagles hitting 15 of 16 from the line -- including a perfect 8 of 8 by Owen Marchetti (12 points).
For the game, the Prep was a very respectable 35 of 38 from the free throw line.
"Our team shot pretty good from the line," said senior guard Mike Carbone, who led all scorers with 18 points. "I don't know how many we missed, but that was definitely our best game from the line."
Senior Steve Haladyna had yet another double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds, while Freddy Shove also had 11 points and six boards.
Rinse and repeat: As impressive as the Eagles' game-opening defensive stand was, they were also just as efficient in breaking the Titans' 2-2-1 full court press. Over and over again, the Prep ballhandler would push the ball up one sideline to halfcourt and heave it down court towards the opposite sideline as a second trapping defender approached.
"We wanted to throw it over the top," Connolly said. "We'd seen them before, and thought they really overextended those two back guys, so we wanted to try to beat it over the top. We felt dribbling through it wasn't a good option for us, we wanted to pass over it."
McCarthy admitted his players were "a little undisciplined" in their press, "because we were too anxious."
"Usually, our idea of our pressure is to challenge the ballhandler," he said. "We backed up. We were just so inexperienced, that we'd be looking at the score as we were running back on defense. The score concerned us so much today. But you know, it happens. We're talented, but we can't be on a pedestal because we have a lot of growing pains to do."
Carbone steps it up: Connolly praised Carbone's effort the last few games, after getting off on a shoddy start to the season.
While not incredible, consider tonight a spin in the positive direction. The spunky 5-foot-8 senior came out firing, with a little bit of his customary swagger, and was 3-of-5 from three-point range, his only field goals of the night (he was 3 of 9 from the field overall). From the free throw line, he was a perfect 9 for 9.
"I haven't been shooting the ball that well lately, and it's gotten to my head," Carbone said. "In practice, I've been focusing on my shot more than anything else I've done. I don't know, it's just the adrenaline, you know? I got into it."
Fab Froshies: One of the most intriguing subplots of this game was the matchup between two freshman point guards, Prep's Marcos Echevarria and Mission's Greg Bridges. Both are undersized for their position, but are quick off the dribble and demonstrate maturity and an overall even keel when it comes to shot selection and distribution.
When the Titans mounted their comeback in the second half, it was Bridges that kick-started it. The 5-foot-5 waterbug notched six assists in the third quarter alone, and eight overall for the game. Echevarria won't be lighting up the score sheet on many nights, what with the Eagles' four seniors' abilities, but he showed a good understanding of Connolly's motion offense, and initiated ball movement.
"I thought their kid played well, he didn't turn the ball over," McCarthy said of Echevarria.
As for Bridges, McCarthy continued, "He has to learn to force the action a little bit, because even as a freshman he makes good decisions. He could do that [six assists in third quarter] all the time. He's still a freshman, still a young boy, so I think what ended up happening is he didn't try to do too much when I wanted him to do more.
"It's scary to say that of a freshman, but he's so talented that he should do a lot more. He should look for his shot, look for the action, and I know that's crazy to say about a freshman but he should force the action. He has to be involved, and he wasn't involved the way he should have."