SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Intimidating? The No. 8 Springfield Central High School boy’s basketball team won’t admit it, but the Golden Eagles are growing an armored layer of invincibility with every convincing Western Mass win.
Some old-timers say there hasn’t been a better high school team in the region since Springfield Cathedral won the state title in 2002. Others say this Central team is the school’s best since former NBA guard Travis Best lit up the scoreboards.
“They win most games before they even step on the court. They just intimidate the piss out of people,” said Springfield Cathedral coach Justin Dalessio before his team lost 87-78 at Central on Monday night.
But there was nothing scared or timid about Cathedral.
“We know you don’t put fear into those guys. They come to play hard every night, especially against us,” said Central coach Mike Labrie.
The players in the cross-town rival know each other well. They had tied for the Valley League title last season. Many of the players play AAU basketball, summer league basketball or pickup basketball with each other. The level of familiarity bred a certain amount of respect. But it also brought a scrappiness that was evident in both teams.
“We knew exactly what we were going into. I call [Central] my brothers. I love them to death on and off the court,” said Jordan Monts, who led Cathedral with 27 points. “But on the court, I want nothing more than to beat them.”
On Monday, Monts would not be so lucky.
The two teams raced back and forth so quickly in the first quarter that spectators seemingly resembled like tennis fans, their heads whipping back and forth to follow the ball. Central hit four threes in the quarter, but Cathedral countered with quick ball movement to beat the famed Central press, and the Panthers trailed just 21-19 after one.
Central had been steam-rolling teams from Western Mass., its closest game entering Monday out of nine in the region being a 19-point victory against Putnam a week and a half ago. The Eagles were beating Western Mass teams by an average of 34.8 points heading into Monday’s meeting against Cathedral, although they did lose to Connecticut power Windsor High School by six points in the Hoophall Classic.
“The scores we’re beating people by are intimidating them. It’s not us. It’s the scores,” said guard Chris Prophet, who led Central with 20 points. But when pressed, he added, “We have great guard play, when we get Tyrell Springer going he’s a great player and Kamari (Robinson) -- our whole team is really good.”
The Eagles weren’t perfect Monday night, but they were good enough. Cathedral primarily uses five players and brings very little depth off the bench (although Cullen Burke did provide a lift Monday, especially in the second half), and the second quarter saw Central’s depth begin to make its impact.
The Eagles held Cathedral to just two points in the first five minutes of the second quarter, forcing turnovers and turning them into transition buckets to open a 41-32 halftime lead. But Cathedral would not go without a fight. Almost literally.
The game turned into a whistle-fest. Five technical fouls were called, including a double technical foul that occurred when Marquez Collins (who scored 21 points for Cathedral) finished an and-one, screamed in a Central player’s face and then got shoved for his antics. Cathedral shot 23 second-half free throws. Central shot 28.
“The refs really favored us,” said Prophet.
“The game lost its flow,” added Dalessio, “and my players -- we have four senior starters -- need to have more composure.”
Central led by as many as 18 points after halftime, and Cathedral never cut the lead closer than six. But every time it seemed as if Central would put the game in its back pocket, Cathedral revived itself with a run.
Three minutes into the third quarter, Cathedral trailed by ten points when the crowd started chanting for Springer, who had been mostly kept in check before then.
“Ty-rell, Spring-er” came the home crowd chants, and the jumping jack Springer, as if on cue, bounced into action. He leapt and caught a pass, then streaked in for a two-handed tomahawk slam. Central stole the following inbounds pass and Springer exploded to the hoop, catching a bounce pass and rising in one motion for his second dunk in ten seconds. When Cathedral was called for a technical foul 20 seconds later, Springer hit both free throws for his fifth and sixth points in a 30-second span, and the 52-36 lead seemed insurmountable.
“I didn’t notice the crowd until someone pointed it out. When the game is going, I’m not focused on anything but the court,” said Springer, who finished with 14 points but fouled out midway through the fourth quarter.
Even after Springer’s surge, the win wouldn’t come easy. Monts and Collins attacked the hoop repeatedly as Central’s taller defenders struggled to stay in front of Cathedral’s five-guard lineup. Cathedral would cut the lead to single digits, Central would seize control again and Cathedral would dig itself out of yet another grave.
The Panthers made one final charge to cut a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to 79-73 with two minutes left. But on the ensuing possession, Lee Turner drilled a three-pointer from the corner and Central could finally put Cathedral into its rearview.
“Nothing comes easy against Cathedral,” said Prophet. “They just play really hard.”