LOWELL, Mass. -- It seemed only appropriate that, with the two-point Lowell and North Andover played each other earlier in the season, that Tuesday’s game would come down to the final minute of play.
Behind two clutch free throws each from Derek Collins (19 points, five rebounds) and Chris Bardwell (25 points, 10 rebounds), North Andover held on to win 67-63 in a hotly-contested Merrimack Valley Conference matchup.
With 46 seconds remaining, North (13-2) clung to a one-point lead. Lowell’s (14-3) Kareem Davis fouled Kyle White before an inbounds pass, which put him on the line for a one-and-one. White missed the free throw, but the rebound was corralled by Bardwell, who was also fouled.
He was going to the line after having missed his only free throw attempt of the game earlier on. This was to potentially win the game for his team.
“The first game against Andover in the Greater Lawrence Christmas Tourament, we were up by two and I was at the line,” he said. “We needed two to final it off, and I only hit one. That’s pretty much what was going through my head.”
The free throws were good, making it 63-60. On the ensuing Lowell possession, it knew who needed the ball in his hands, and they got it to him. Jonathan Perez, a senior guard, had already hit five 3-pointers earlier in the game, so he was the hot hand. The team worked the ball around and found him behind the arc beyond the left elbow. Just as earlier in the game, the shot went in, and the game was tied.
On the next North possession, Collins was fouled, putting him at the line. He too, had not shot it well from the free throw line earlier in the game, having missed his only two attempts of the game. This time, he stepped to the line to try to put his team ahead with mere seconds on the clock.
“I missed the first two (earlier in the game) and Coach looked at me and said, ‘You’re hitting the next two,” he said. “It was the same thing in our last game too. I was just able to focus and knock them down.”
Lowell turned the ball over on its next possession, forcing North to inbound the ball successfully one more time before the game was over. Isaiah Nelson tossed a baseball pass to midcourt, which was caught by Bardwell. He went to the line and hit his two free throws to secure the victory.
“Everybody told me from the minute we got in the MVC that (Lowell) was going to be as tough a place as we would go all year,” said North Andover coach Mike McVeigh. “Lowell is right behind us, one game in the standings. I kept telling my guys in timeout, 'What did you expect?'
“This is a very, very good Lowell team. I’m just proud of our guys. I thought we executed down the stretch very well. I’m just very thrilled with our guys right now.”
Perez shines in loss: Even in defeat, Lowell’s Jonathan Perez showed why his team will be such a tough out once the state tournament rolls around. He had 24 points Tuesday, including 6 3-pointers, none of which was more crucial than the shot he hit with 32.6 seconds to go to tie the game at 63.
He was hitting shots from beyond the three-point line, shots with hands in his face, and shots when he only had one clear moment to look at the basket. It was the type of performance where defenders could only throw up their hands, wondering how he was hitting the shots he took.
“Perez is something special,” said McVeigh. “I’ve known him for four years, and he’s just a killer. Our kids did everything to stop him and he still scored.”
Raiders a nuisance on D: Tuesday was the epitome of a coach’s dream game. Yes, North Andover came away with the victory, but there were multiple aspects of the game that were far from perfect.
When Lowell went to a full-court trapping press, the ball often found its way into the hands of a big, or someone not used to dribbling his way out of hounding defensive pressure. North Andover’s Isaiah Nelson (15 points, nine rebounds) often dribbled the ball up the floor when the guards were under duress. While he did get the ball over halfcourt, he threw errant passes on three occasions and was stripped of the ball another. This led to Lowell transition opportunities and a tighter ballgame.
“Bringing the ball up the court is what we’ve been having trouble with the whole year,” said Bardwell. “I can pretty much put the blame on me and (Isaiah). We’re not flashing, we’re not helping the guards, we’re not going to the middle when they’re trying to dribble. When they’re getting pressured, we’re not coming in and we’re not being a receiver.”
“But (Lowell) is really good on defense,” he added. “They’re pains. You can’t handle it.”
Another problem the Knights had was a propensity to get trapped with the ball against the baseline. But rather than pass out of trouble, players often held on to the ball, which lead to multiple five-second violations.
Lowell’s defense showed that regardless of the win, North Andover still has work to do in this final month of the season before the start of the state tournament.
“There’s not a game that goes by, or a timeout, that I don’t say the words, ‘You’re going to make mistakes,” said McVeigh. “Look how many I make. I’ll say wrong names, I’ll call wrong plays. I’m excited just like my kids are excited, all coaches are. You just have to tell them that there’s a human element out there. One of the great things, the beauty of this game is that it takes poise, hard work, and effort.”
In good position: Having now defeated Lowell twice, Central Catholic once, and every other team in the Merrimack Valley Conference Large besides Andover at least once, North Andover is only one game behind Central in the league standings. It has its eyes on the league title in its first year in the league. The quest continues Friday, when it hopes to get at least one victory against Andover this season.
“All we’re thinking about is that MVC championship,” said Bardwell. “We know we can win this. We all believe we can win the MVC championship. This game is a step ahead. Every day we say how cool would it be to win the MVC? I was always in the MVC, since I transferred from Central Catholic, and I know the MVC is the hardest league in the state. I believe that. We’re just so motivated to come in and win it. If we do, it would be amazing. But I believe we can, and everyone else on the team believes we can.”