SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- No. 5 Springfield Central knew emotions would rise like smoke inside the Springfield Commerce High School gym. But rowdy environments and scrappy opponents are becoming Central’s shot of adrenaline.
As if Western Mass. teams need any additional incentive to knock Central off its lofty perch, Commerce entered Wednesday night’s city rivalry knowing that guard Alex Lopez needed just four points to reach 1,000 for his career. Anticipation of the milestone collided with the natural excitement of facing Western Mass.’s best team, leaving a Commerce gym that bounced with excitement.
Central strutted into the lion’s den and exited with another impressive victory, souring Lopez’ big night by a score of 52-43.
“This season’s been great. It’s been a coach’s dream. We don’t even talk about playoffs," Central coach Mike Labrie said. "We don’t talk about two opponents down the road. It sound like a cliche, but all we do is focus on our next opponent. It’s really easy for me to coach because they don’t care about anything but the next game."
The night did not make for a clinic in shot-making, as both teams combined to miss a number of decent looks. A fierce pace almost left steam coming from the players’ sneakers, but the scoreboard did not reflect the mounting number of possessions. Central’s defense challenged each Commerce shot and its offense -- missing starting power forward Kamari Robinson, out for undisclosed reasons -- struggled to make outside shots.
The Golden Eagles led 13-7 when Lopez was fouled with 1:41 remaining in the first quarter. The senior toed the line and drilled both free throws for the 999th and 1,000th points of his career, becoming the first Commerce player to reach the milestone since 2007.
“It feels great. It’s a mark that not very many people get,” Lopez said.
“Alex has meant an awful lot to this program over the last four years. He's our leader. He's our best all-around player, and even though he scored 1,000 points, they were a very unselfish 1,000,” Commerce coach Gary Mindell added. “He's really just about trying to win the game. Unfortunately, on his special night, we couldn't win the game for him."
It was Commerce’s third consecutive loss, after opening the season with 11 straight victories.
Central finished the first quarter with a 15-9 lead, then applied a blanket that smothered Commerce’s offense until halftime came. Commerce scored just four points the entire second quarter, missing a lot of shots in and around the painted area, especially during a six-minute drought in which Central increased its lead from four to 12.
“We missed a lot of easy baskets right around the rim, and it really hurt us,” said Lopez, who finished with 14 points to lead the Red Raiders.
“It’s easy for us to say those are easy,” said Mindell. “But when you’re out there with two 6-foot-7 guys jumping and extending their arms at you, short looks aren’t necessarily the easy ones.”
Central’s lead slowly grew as Commerce’s offense stalled, thanks to eight first-half points from Chris Prophet (who ended with 12) and a quick scoring burst from Lee Turner. The senior guard Turner, who chipped in 14 points, went on a personal 7-0 run as Central opened a 25-13 halftime lead.
Turner’s quick spurt included one ridiculous three-pointer. He jumped out of bounds to save a loose ball, and, in mid-air, turned toward the hoop and fired a shot that split the rim as he fell into the first row of bleachers.
“I practice those shots in practice -- a lot, a lot, a lot,” Turner said. “So when I caught it, I gathered myself, looked at the hoop and just shot a regular shot. I just fell out of bounds and it went in, and I just felt like it was practice. I knew it was going in. I came to my bench and my team was like, ‘Yeah, I knew it was going in, too.’”
Does Turner really practice shots like that?
“He shoots insane shots like that in practice all the time, so we’re just used to it,” said Central star Tyrell Springer, who paced the Golden Eagles with 15 points. “We started getting a little flow, and as soon as he caught it and shot it up, I threw up my three fingers and knew it was going down.”
Lopez and Shadiar Thompson (13 points) tried to bring Commerce back after halftime, cutting the deficit to seven points during the third quarter, but Central quelled every run and the margin was at least eight for the entire fourth frame.
“We have a lot of the same guys as last season, but we have more of a brotherhood now,” Springer said. “On the court, off the court, we’re with each other all the time. We communicate with each other a lot more. We even help each other with our homework. We’re just with each other 24/7.”
The brotherhood is now 13-1, undefeated in Massachusetts play.
“And I don’t believe we’re going to take anyone lightly,” said Labrie.