Hoophall: Springfield Central 67, Manchester (Conn.) 57

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Is Springfield Central finally turning the corner?

Is the defending Division 1 State Champion living up to the expectations put on it coming off last season, even after starting the season 2-2?

After systematically defeating Manchester (Conn.) 67-57 Saturday at the Hoophall Classic, it just might be.

“We were a bad team three weeks ago,” said Central (8-2) coach Mike LaBrie. “I think we’re pretty good right now. We have room to grow.”

Central’s offense slowly developed in the first quarter. In its first few possessions, it took its possessions down to the final seconds of the shot clock while the team tried to find a flow to its offense. That lethargy showed up on defense as well, which allowed Manchester (7-2) to get open looks at the basket and score effectively on transition.

As the quarter continued, Central started to get out and run itself, and was only down 13-12 by the end of the first frame.

In the second, Chris Baldwin (23 points, 18 rebounds, eight blocks) started to assert himself as a dominant force under the basket. Central’s halfcourt offense almost always involved feeding the ball to him down low, and letting him work against Manchester’s smaller post players.

Occasionally, he would even step out along the baseline and hit a short jumpshot. When a big man can work inside as well as Baldwin can, and then step out and hit a short jumper, it is a matchup nightmare for most teams.

“(Friday) we tried to get the ball in his hands, but then we were fading away from it a little bit,” said Kamari Robinson (15 points, 8 rebounds). “This game, it was all towards him. This was his game to eat. I got MVP last night, and he got it tonight, so it was a good game on both our parts.”

As a senior leader on the Central squad, Robinson told the sophomore big man that he was going to be a big part of the team’s success, and did his best to get his teammate as focused as he could be.

“I knew they were scouting our game yesterday (against West Springfield) when I had 35 points, so I knew they were going to focus on me more and lay off him a little bit and play him one-on-one,” he said. “I told him, ‘They’re probably going to be on me, so it’s your time to shine. Once they come on me, you just do your thing. I really don’t care, as long as we win.”

They came away from the Hoophall Classic with their second win in as many days, showing the rest of the state that it is a different Springfield Central team from the one that won the state title last season, but it is still a team to take seriously in Division 1 basketball.

Scouting Manchester: For not being familiar with the Indians, Central was able to make effective defensive adjustments throughout the game to slow down its offense. Manchester started the game strong, finding its shooters clean looks from the outside and moving the ball well in transition.

Senior guard Christian Walker came into the game as a notorious long range sharpshooter, and he showed why early on. He was 4-of-7 from the field in the first half, but finished the game with 16 points and 7-of-22, including 2-of-7 from beyond the arc.

“We ended up chasing (Walker) a little bit, but we didn’t leave him at all” said LaBrie. “They have so many shooters. They’ve got some weapons.”

Central made the most of its other opportunities as well, going 20-of-31 at the free throw line, while Manchester was 8-of-13.

Height comes through: Coming into the game, Central felt it would be able to use its size to its advantage against the smaller Manchester team. It established the 6-foot-7 Baldwin early and often offensively in the post, and he made his mark defensively with eight blocked shots.

“I thought we had a size advantage, so we tried to get the ball inside,” said LaBrie. “On the offensive boards (8, with 10 defensive rebounds), he was a monster. He had eight blocks. He alters the game. No one wants to drive on him.

“He was a factor last night (13 points, eight rebounds in Central’s 76-67 win over West Springfield) even though he didn’t play great offensively. On defense, I thought he did a great job because he was altering everybody’s shot. He didn’t score points like he normally does, but he was a factor.”

Manchester had trouble going inside against Baldwin at all. It’s tallest player, Baylen Eason, is listed at 6-foot-5, but he did not start and played only 15 minutes Saturday. He finished with 2 points and 5 rebounds. Courtney Deberry, Manchester’s 6-foot-2 starting center, was matched up with Baldwin for the other part of the game. He had a quiet night, finishing with four points and five rebounds.

For Springfield Central to have the success it wants this season, it needs Baldwin to be the force it knows he can be. That player showed up in a big way Saturday on both ends of the floor, which was not always the case Friday night. Could his game be rounding into form at the right time, just like the rest of his team’s?

“I felt like I was more aggressive tonight,” he said. “I tried to establish myself inside.”