Recap: Central Catholic 56, Pinkerton (N.H.) 39

LAWRENCE, Mass. -- Aside from being down by a point at the end of the first quarter, not much went wrong for No. 1 Central Catholic Wednesday against Pinkerton.

In the semi-finals of the Greater Lawrence Christmas Tournament, the Raiders cruised to a 56-39 victory over the visiting team from New Hampshire.

The win sets up a meeting with town rival Lawrence Friday for the tournament’s championship.

The Raiders found out early on that they could control the boards against the noticeably smaller Pinkerton team, which lead to many second-chance opportunities, while denying their opponents the opportunity at others.

Central out-rebounded Pinkerton 48-23, which included only one Pinkerton offensive rebound.

“If it wasn’t for the offensive rebounds, the outcome of the game might have been a little different if we didn’t rebound the way we did,” said Central Catholic coach Rick Nault. “I didn’t think we played all that well, especially defensively. I wasn’t happy with our performance, I think we can play a lot better.”

Central lost a large piece of its puzzle very early in the game when guard Luis Puello went down with an ankle injury when he was going after a ball. He tried to come back into the game at the start of the second half, but asked out of the game shortly thereafter.

He had a noticeable limp and struggled moving laterally with the basketball. The initial prognosis from the trainers was a high ankle sprain, which is likely to keep him out of the tournament finals Friday.

With the injury occurring so early in the game, the team knew other players would have to step up and carry the load, and Tyler Nelson helped to do just that.

After going cold on a handful of 3-pointers in the first half, the sophomore guard kept shooting. Like any streaky jump shooter, he knew all he had to do was hit one, and then a lot more could follow. That he did, hitting five 3-pointers in a row, helping to build the lead for his team. He ended the game with 17 points and 6 rebounds.

“I knew someone was going to have to come off the bench and it was probably going to be either Lucas (Hammel) or Henry (Rodriguez) to play the guard, so I kind of established myself on the wing,” said Nelson. “Luckily, they left me open a few times. My shot was off early and then I started knocking down two or three in a row, and it just picked up from there. They were leaving me open, so I just let it fly.”

It was just what the team needed on offense.

“Without Luis, we tend to struggle offensively,” said Nault. “If we can get Tyler open looks, he’s going to eventually start knocking them down. He missed his first few but eventually started knocking them down. He’s a shooter. We tell him to take the shots when he’s open, it’s just sometimes he’s too unselfish, so we need to get him going a little bit.”

Chris Light lead the way for Pinkerton with 13 points and 8 rebounds.

Not satisfied: Leave it to a coach to find flaws in his or her team’s big victory. Nault felt his team could have performed better, even though it came away with a 17-point victory.

“I think we have to take care of the basketball better, finish around the rim,” he said. “I think our halfcourt defense, something that we pride ourselves on, is usually something we’re very good at. I thought we stunk tonight.”

Cross-city rivals on tap: The victory sets up a matchup between two teams that know each other all too well. With the way his team played Wednesday combined with the confidence of Lawrence coming off its last-minute victory the game before, Central knows it is in for a tough task Friday if it wants to win the Tournament and remain atop the Merrimack Valley Conference.

“They’re a scary matchup for us Friday night,” said Nault. “It’s good for the city. It’s good for the kids on both teams. While it’s a rivalry, I think it’s a friendly rivalry. I think it will be a great atmosphere.

“They’re just tenacious defensively, they have two great players in the post in Roberto Speing and Tre’von Farley, who are two very, very active kids. Then you’ve got Yadoris Arias on the point, who is very good with the basketball. They have a lot of good pieces, including a bench that can go up-and-down. They’re a tough, tough matchup. We’re going to have our hands full.”

Nelson agreed.

“They’re going to come out and they’re gonna play tough,” he said. “They’re going to want to win and we’re going to do the same thing so it’s going to be a battle. The place is going to be crazy, it’s going to come down to who wants it more.

Nault turns 40: Wednesday was Nault’s 40th birthday. As a present, the student fans serenaded him by singing "Happy Birthday" in the final few minutes of the game. With that, even the normally straight-faced Nault cracked a smile and gave a shy wave to the crowd in acknowledgement.

“I’ve never had the kids sing on my birthday,” he said. “Last year, was the first time we ever lost to Andover in five years, so it was not a pleasant birthday. This year, it’s nice to get a W.”