Recap: St. Anthony (N.J.) 54, Central Catholic 50

BOSTON -- It wasn’t supposed to happen like that.

Central Catholic was not supposed to be in a game until the final minute with national power St. Anthony (N.J.), a team going for its national record 70th straight win. But tonight, it was.

Central’s Tyler Nelson (12 points, five assists, two rebounds) was fouled on a put-back with 1:04 left in the game to make it a three-point game. St. Anthony’s got the ball over halfcourt and drained the shot clock and scored to add to its lead.

Nelson rushed down the court and hit a three-pointer with 2.5 seconds left to cut the lead back to two. Lucas Hammel committed a foul before the ensuing inbounds pass could occur, and St. Anthony’s Hallice Cooke hit both free throws to put the game out of reach. Central lost 54-50, but made a statement to the rest of MIAA basketball in the process.

“We said in the locker room that there were certain things we needed to do,” said Central Catholic coach Rick Nault. “We felt like we needed to outwork them, and out toughen them. We definitely weren’t going to be more athletic or have more ability. We definitely weren’t going to out-coach them. So we needed to do those specific things, and our guys answered the bell right from the beginning. I thought we fought the entire 32 minutes and am incredibly proud of our group right now.”

Central (5-1) matched the Friars' (7-0) intensity on both ends of the floor for the entire game. Its defensive pressure was difficult for St. Anthony’s to handle at times, and allowed it to create 14 turnovers.

The Raiders' play drew high praise from St. Anthony’s Hall of Fame coach.

“I think they could’ve won the game,” said Bob Hurley. “I know they can play with anybody. As long as they don’t get in foul trouble in and around the basket, where they have to go to the bench. The guards are terrific, Lucas Hammel [5 rebounds, 4 assists] does a real good job with the ball and doesn’t get flustered, he’s grown up in the gym. Tyler Nelson is a very effective player, he hit some big shots in the game. I think Nick Cambio (15 points, 5 rebounds), by the end of the season, is going to be a real good option for them. Then you still have those kids inside.”

St. Anthony’s Josh Brown, a Temple commit, was just 3-13 from the field. In his place, Hallice Cooke, an Oregon State commit, stepped up and scored 19 points, including 6-of-8 from the free throw line.

The team from Massachusetts wasn’t afraid of the St. Anthony mystique, and it showed with the way it attacked the basket, getting 22 points in the paint and 11 second chances points against a team that was noticeably taller than them.

“We knew their coach is a great coach and they were going to get after it just like us,” said Cambio. “So it was a battle, but it was really fun today.”

Turning up the pressure: Central was only down 25-23 at halftime ,when those in the gym started seriously wondering whether the upset could happen. The talk got louder when it came out and started the third on a 7-0 run to take a five-point lead. Then coming out of a timeout, St. Anthony switched to a full-court press, which flummoxed Central.

Hurley’s squad went on a 16-4 run over the next five minutes. Still, Central hit a few big shots, including a Nelson three to end the quarter, and was only down three going into the final frame. It did not help that Central’s starting forwards and energy players, Joel Berroa, picked up his fourth foul with 7:32 to go in the third quarter.

“The biggest plus for us in this game was that Berroa was in foul trouble,” said Hurley. “If he had played, Berroa’s got a motor. I don’t know what we would’ve done with him out there, with the way Cambio played and with the kid inside (Doug Gemmell, 10 points, nine rebounds, three assists), he’s a horse.”

No rest for the wicked: Friday marked the second hard fought game in a row for Central Catholic. After narrowly beating Andover 64-63 Thursday night in the semifinals of the Greater Lawrence Christmas Tournament, the Red Raiders turned around and played St. Anthony Friday in Boston. Saturday, they head back to Lawrence to play the finals of the Christmas Tournament against a foe they know all too well: Lawrence High.

When the cross-town rivals square off, it’s always a special atmosphere. It is a game Lawrence always has circled on its calendar, and now it has the added dimension of being on its home court, with Central playing for the third time in three days.

“That’s going to be the challenge now,” said Nault. “Three games, three nights, three very emotional games for us. This is the mental challenge of it, trying to get it done tomorrow night. It will be a huge task against Lawrence.”

The Central players know full well what to expect and are up for the challenge.

“We know what we have to do,” said Cambio. “We have to get good rest, because tomorrow is a big game. We know they’re going to come after us, because it’s on their home court. We just need to be careful with what we do and we’ll get after it tomorrow.”

Hit the ground running: Because his team was so occupied with preparing for Andover, Nault knew next to nothing about St. Anthony coming in to Friday. As a result, he and the coaching staff had to do a lot of adjusting on the fly to get the matchups they wanted.

“We came in with scratch, with nothing,” he said. “As the game wore on, we felt that we could try to go up and down with them, despite their athletic ability, and try to expose some of their weaknesses in terms of post play and things like that. I thought we did a nice job with that tonight.”