SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Last year’s speed bumps, this year’s dominance, everything paved a road of tribulation and reward which led to this: Springfield Central, the No. 1 team in the state, trailed St. John’s 44-38 with 6:23 remaining in the state semifinals Tuesday night at the MassMutual Center.
Central coach Mike Labrie called timeout and reminded his team of a drill they used so many times in practice. He calls it “animal” –- a coach throws the ball to the basket, no fouls are called, anything goes, and the objective is for one side to score 10 points first.
Labrie knows his squad thrives when games become muddy, even possesses a unique ability to control chaos.
“Let’s play animal with them,” he told his players. “Who’s going to win an animal game? We will.”
St. John’s didn’t score again until less than a minute remained, and only scored three points the rest of the way. Tyrell Springer -– who finished with 18 points, 11 steals, eight rebounds and five blocks -– hammered home a put-back dunk with 2:30 left to give Central its first lead of the fourth quarter, 45-44, then captured another offensive rebound and tip-in on Central’s very next possession.
When Central’s mesmerizing scramble ended with the final buzzer, the Golden Eagles had seized a 52-47 victory, securing a title bout with Brockton in Saturday’s MIAA Division 1 state finals at the DCU Center in Worcester.
“We kept it away from the chaos until about four minutes to go, but then they turned us over a few times down the stretch,” St. John’s coach Bob Foley said. “They’re tall, they’re athletic, they’re everything.”
They’re everything, yet without the aptly-named Springer, they’d probably be an everything sitting at home on Saturday. When asked about the lefty kangaroo’s surreal stat line, Labrie just nodded.
“I’m used to it,” he said.
Used to someone briefly flirting with a quadruple-double? Dominating on both ends? Sprinting in for a putback dunk just when Central needed a bucket most? Working his way inside to clean up a teammate’s miss again on the next play, despite being just 6-foot-2?
“That’s what he does. And what’s nice about it is that he could score 30 a game. But that wouldn’t be what’s best for us. He lets the game come to him, and he kind of determines, ‘What’s better tonight?” Labrie said.
“‘Am I going to defend?’ Obviously he defends all the time. ‘Am I going to share the ball? Am I going to make people involved? Am I going to take it to the hole? Am I going to take the outside shot?’ And tonight he just decided to take over.”
Springer explained, “This game just meant so much. I was just trying to do as much as I could in every aspect of the game."
Central trailed 44-43 when Chris Prophet missed a three with 2:30 left. The ball hung suspended in the air about six inches above the rim, a level in the stratosphere very few high school players -– much less do-it-all guards –- can reach.
Springer sprung, grabbed the board and slammed it through the hoop, giving the Golden Eagles a lead they would never surrender.
“I jumped my highest. Even if it went off to the side, I knew I was up high enough to grab it,” he said. “That put-back pretty much sealed the deal. After they saw that –- I looked at them and saw it, they just didn’t want to play as much.”
“They had a lot of momentum on that tip dunk, slam, whatever you want to call it,” said St. John’s center Matt Palecki, who finished with eight points. “I thought we did a good job trying to control things after that, but sometimes it’s just not your day.”
For Central, this journey began last year. With almost the exact ensemble as this season, the Golden Eagles finished 12-8, falling to Westfield in the Western Mass. quarterfinals.
To some observers, the season was a disappointment. But to Labrie, it was a necessary step toward reaching the mountaintop.
“Last year we got better and better. We look at this year, everyone’s talking about this year. But it was last year when we made significant improvements throughout the season. It’s those years where you’re 12-8 that really make the difference, and all of a sudden you’re 23-1,” he said.
Without last year’s lessons, perhaps senior guard Lee Turner would not have finished with 14 points, including a critical five-point flurry in the third quarter.
Perhaps Prophet would not have shaken off four straight missed free throws to can two in the fourth quarter, bringing Central within one point.
Perhaps Kamari Robinson and Jevaughn McMillian -- the latter of whom left during the second half with an injured ankle -- would not have done combined for 11 rebounds and four blocks while doing such an impressive job limiting Palecki inside.
Perhaps the Golden Eagles would have folded after giving up five straight points to begin the fourth quarter. Instead, they tightened their defense and turned once more to their good friend -- chaos.
“Mostly, we just gutted it out,” said Labrie. “With our veteran core, you just hope you can control the last four minutes. And we did.”
No update on McMillian: Labrie didn't have an update on the McMillian's status following the game, stating simply, "I'd like to get Jevaughn healthy by Saturday."
The 6-foot-7 McMillian is considered one of the premier shot blockers in Western Mass., and has proven a terrific compliment to the 6-foot-5 Robinson in the frontcourt. Brockton's Sayvonn Houston, arguably the state's premier center, would stand to benefit if McMillian is out of the lineup or less than 100 percent during the state finals.
Advanced Scouting: Labrie spent all season preparing for St. John’s.
Knowing that Central might meet the Pioneers in the state semifinals –- they entered this season having won the last four Central Mass. sectional titles –- Labrie and his coaching staff scouted St. John’s six times throughout the season.
“That’s a pretty interesting thing that they did that because Holy Name and St. Peter’s, going into the year, were the teams to beat," Foley said. "We consider that to be the ultimate compliment that they came and saw us six times."
He added, “We’re hard to scout because we don’t run plays. Well, we have one, but for the most part it’s just motion, cutting.”
Central still benefited from seeing St. John’s so often, with Labrie noting that he spent plenty of time devising the best way to stop Palecki.
“He’s a tremendous worker,” Labrie said. “But we knew we could play behind him, as long as he doesn’t post up under the hoop. He goes right all the time and we have shot blockers, so I was comfortable with that matchup.”
A Successful Journey: Despite winning the past four Central Mass. sectional titles, perhaps only a few observers (Labrie obviously excluded) expected St. John’s to reach the state semifinals again this season.
The first few games of the season did little to change anyone’s opinion. St. John’s started 3-4 as the team’s starting lineup, which features two sophomores and a freshman, struggled to mesh.
Even in defeat on Tuesday, the Pioneers realized how special their turnaround was.
“We took the bumpy road to get here. It wasn’t easy, we started the year 3-4, but from there we just rattled off a big winning streak,” Palecki said, referring to the 16 straight wins St. John’s earned before falling to Central.
“Our confidence just improved game after game. I’m just proud of the way our guys played tonight. It was a full 32-minute effort, and you can’t ask for much more than that against probably the No. 1 team in the state.”
Noted junior Ken Harrington, after netting seven points, “Nobody even expected us to make the playoffs this year. We slowly started coming back, under our captain Matt Palecki and Coach –- everyone bought into everything Coach said. Every game we got better, every practice we got better."
“These kids just kept on winning," Foley said. "Then we hit the districts –- and we talk about the dirt road. You saw who we had to play in the districts. We had to go through Milford, No. 5, and then Holy Name, No. 1, and then St. Peter’s, No. 2. It was no easy street there and these kids took them all on. Those are the memories we look at."
“For what it’s worth, we won the state championship in 2000. Yay, you get a plaque,” he added with an edge of sarcasm. “The biggest thing I remember about that year is we beat Holy Name with Neil Fingleton, who was 7-feet-6. That’s the game I remember. I don’t remember the state championship. You look at the plaque once in a while, but the biggest plaque was the district championship. And these kids can go back to Worcester County and know we did a heck of a job this year with what we had.”
This wasn’t the most talented St. John’s team; Palecki admitted as much. But in yet another season that featured a masterful coaching job by Foley, the St. John’s name still matters.
“It means something special. When you talk about high school basketball in Massachusetts, you’re talking about St. John’s,” Labrie said.