WARWICK, R.I. –- Even Central Catholic coach Rick Nault had to admit he couldn’t have found his team’s offense Sunday with the latest GPS.
Or to put it another way, how many teams –- regardless of what league they play in –- can win a game by shooting 30.4 percent (14-for-46)?
But that’s exactly what the Raiders did as they beat perennial Rhode Island state power Hendricken, 47-43, in a game that almost completely was devoid of offense.
Central Catholic (13-0), which has been ranked No. 1 every week except one in the ESPNBoston.com MIAA poll, held the Hawks to similar shooting (34.1 percent on 14-of-41) and forced the Hawks into 18 turnovers which enabled the Raiders to remain undefeated.
“I think we’ve always prided ourselves on defense,” Nault said with a raspy voice. “If you talk to coaches in Massachusetts, I think they would say that we’re tough defensively. We challenge the guards. We try to take teams out of their offense.
“When Hendricken has players like (Lee) Messier (10 points), (Greg) Palumbo (six points) and the big kid (6-foot-6 Nick Bourdeau, who only scored six points) … they have some real good pieces. We put a challenge into trying to contain them defensively and I think we did that for the most part.”
Central really contained the Hawks (8-5) during one stretch early in the second half.
Hendricken led 30-25 when Central went on a 16-1 run, with Nick Cambio scoring six of his overall 11 points for a 41-31 lead. And during this run, the Raiders forced the Hawks into five turnovers.
Central’s proficiency during this stretch was attributed to its full-court press and its in-your-face, man-to-man defense.
“Both of our teams are known for our defense,” Hendricken coach Jamal Gomes said. “I know Central Catholic is holding teams most of the year in the high 40s, and that’s where we’re holding teams (i.e. prior to this game Central was allowing 51.0 ppg and Hendricken was allowing 49.8 ppg.). We knew going into it the game it would be a defensive battle.
“Central Catholic’s pressure on the ball is outstanding, and it’s all game long. I think what happened was we were able to stem that in the first half (which ended with Hendricken leading, 25-23). Then, their ball pressure wore us down.”
Hawks off to flying start: Ironically, Hendricken built a 23-13 lead with 4:21 left in the first half due in part to an 8-0 run -– which was fueled by its man-to-man defense.
But the Raiders countered with a 10-2 run as Tyler Nelson scored six of his overall 13 points –- and which helped offset nine Central turnovers.
“Offensively we didn’t play well,” Nault said. “We didn’t take care of the ball, either.
Halting final run: Central forged its second 10-point lead, 43-33, on a basket by Mike Barry with 4:11 left and appeared to be in good shape. But the Hawks’ work on the boards sparked a 10-2 run.
And when Messier drained both ends of a one-and-one, Central’s lead was sliced to 45-43 with 23.4 seconds left in regulation.
Hendricken’s press on the ensuing inbounds pass forced a turnover and gave the Hawks a chance to tie and force overtime –- and perhaps to win. But Bourdeau threw up an air ball and Nelson clinched the victory by again sinking both ends of a one-and-one.
“We didn’t want them to get easy touches,” Nault said. “We knew they were probably going to try to go to Messier off a screen or a handoff which they did. We were able to knock the ball loose. Another guy (Bourdeau) picked up the ball and forced a tough shot.
“Luckily we were able to come up with the loose ball. We said during a timeout just get this one stop and we were able to do that today.”
Puello getting close: Even though the Raiders are undefeated and leading the Merrimack Valley League, they could be even tougher to beat once senior guard Luis Puello is fully recovered from a sprained ankle which sidelined him for several games.
“This was his fourth game back,” Nault said. “He’s still about 75 percent. He’s still struggling defensively. He’s not himself defensively.
“When he gets back at full speed and he can play the defense the way he’s been playing the last three years, I think we’re going to be pretty tough. But he’s still hobbling a great deal.”
Gomes has reason for optimism: Once Central went up by 10, Gomes knew his team was in a heap of trouble. But the way the Hawks responded was the polar opposite of the way they played early in the season when they lost four of their first five games.
“I’m very proud of our guys,” Gomes said. “We played tough. We battled. When they sent up six or seven (in the second half), we could have folded but we battled.
“That’s what I’ve been looking for from my team for a while … the toughness, the Hendricken style basketball. Now, we had our difficulties offensively. I don’t know if there are too many teams in Rhode Island that would beat us up like that. But a game like this tells us where we are and where we need to be and what we need to work on.
“I like playing Ricky Nault-coached teams,” Gomes added, “because they get after it. And in most years, they’re tight games.”