LAWRENCE, Mass. -– In practice leading up to Tuesday night’s showdown with North Andover, Nick Cambio must have been listening when coach Rick Nault preached to his team about setting tempo.
Cambio, Central’s 6-foot-5 junior forward, was dominant in the paint throughout the game, finishing with 22 points and leading the Raiders to a 70-60 victory.
Senior forward Joel Berroa got in on the act for Central as well, he and Cambio came out and set the tone early on with their attacking style in the post. Each finished with double digit rebounds, and both were extremely difficult to keep out of the paint or off the glass.
“We knew that me and Joel could take our defenders to the rim every single time. So we just made a quick move, and we were successful with that,” Cambio said.
With the win, Central (15-3) put itself back in pole position for a Merrimack Valley Large title. North Andover (14-3) showed to be a challenge two weeks ago, knocking off the Raiders 58-52, but Central came back tonight with a much more sound effort on both ends of the floor.
“We kept saying ‘just keep playing’, we wanted to play a really uptempo game because I don’t think we can play a halfcourt style of basketball with them,” Central coach Rick Nault said, “So we were trying to make it as hectic as possible, play with a little bit of a fast pace.”
North Andover struggled with the pace of the game, especially in the first half, when Central was pressing fullcourt man on nearly every possession. The Knights made some turnovers on sloppy passes and rushed shots that were a result of tremendous ball pressure. However, they were able to keep the game within striking distance early on, down just 32-24 at halftime.
After halftime, Central made hustle play after hustle play to extend their lead and come out with the victory. The Raiders had four players in double-figures: Cambio, Tyler Nelson (19 points), Barroa (16 points), and Lucas Hammel (11 points).
Hammel’s presence: Central sorely missed injured Lucas Hammel in their last game against North Andover, but the senior guard made his presence felt tonight—constantly harassing the Scarlet Knights’ ballhandlers. He’s not necessarily known as a scorer, but Nault hinted after the game that Hammel might be Central’s most important player overall because of the balance he brings to the team.
“He’s our on the floor leader, he’s a guy we depend on so much defensively, and offensively," Nault said. "He’s one of the best in the state at getting to the rim, whether it’s dishing off to others or finishing. He does so many things for us...He probably played his best high school game tonight.”
Central was trying to key especially on North Andover’s “big three” of Derek Collins, Isaiah Nelsen, and Chris Bardwell. Overall, they had very few defensive lapses over the course of the night, while Hammel and Barroa led the stellar defensive effort.
“Joel Berroa is one of the better defenders in the state, he showed that today," Nault said. "The job that he and Lucas Hammel did on Derek Collins was phenomenal tonight. Chris Bardwell got his, and Brendan Miller hurt us a little bit, but they’ve get to get their scoring from somewhere. We were really focused on slowing down their two bigs and Collins, I’ll take two out of three.”
Collins, who has long been known as one of the state’s best shooters, went just 2-10 from the field. Brendan Miller scored 14 points for North Andover, but often was the victim of traps and double teams when he would try to drive to the rim—Central made it difficult for him to get his points.
“[Having Hammel] It’s all the difference for us," Nault said. "Defensively he is our leader on the floor. It showed tonight getting all those loose balls and getting very active on Derek Collins, huge effort from him tonight.”
Cambio the difference-maker: Through his constant effort on the glass, display of offensive skill, and vocal leadership, Cambio showed tonight just how far he has come since Central lost to Charlestown in the Division 1 North final last year. Known primarily as a post player, skill development was a key for him in the offseason, as seen with the way he is now able to score the ball.
“Joel and Nick, one of them has to get a touch every trip down the floor," Nault said. "That’s been an emphasis for us for a couple weeks, and I think we’re more in tune to that. [Cambio] can score in a lot of ways, a lot of times it looks awkward, but he’s such an effective scorer, he carried us in the first half.”
Cambio scored 14 points in the first half, putting his full offensive repertoire on display with headfakes, drop steps, up-and-under moves, and strong lay-ups off the dribble. At one point in the third quarter he got a defensive rebound off a missed North Andover jumper, dribbled around the Knights’ defenders the length of the floor and finished a finger roll lay-up at the other end.
“It’s working hard rebounding in practice, just trying to get those putbacks right away," Cambio said. "If I miss I just try to get back up as quick as I can. I usually was trying to be a post player last year, but I’m trying to develop my game outside and make quick moves, one-dribble to the rim. It’s a lot of ball handling.”
Continuing to show how well he can run the floor, Cambio received a beautiful pass from Barroa in a three-on-two midway through the fourth quarter—he finished the play, got fouled, and then put in the free throw. That play, along with two other late steals by Hammel, took the wind out of North Andover’s sails.
Bardwell’s return: North Andover forward Chris Bardwell, coming off a 34 point, 12 rebound performance this past weekend against rival Andover, made his presence felt once again tonight. The senior, who transferred to North Andover after spending the previous three years of his high school career at Central, made his return tonight to his old school. He was NA’s leading scorer with 19 points and 11 rebounds, and received very high praise from his previous coach after the game.
“He has turned into one of the best players in the state. Our gameplan was to try to slow down him and Nelsen, and I think we did a pretty good job on Nelsen,” Nault said. “We worked extremely hard against Bardwell, but he got the ball in scoring areas and was able to finish. He made plays and you have to give him all the credit. I’m glad he’s having success.”
Cambio was brief in discussing Bardwell, but seemed to enjoy the competitiveness of playing against a former teammate.
“It’s always fun, but there’s always an edge you have to play with because he left your school. It’s always a battle, it was fun,” he said.
Down the home stretch: The win is just the beginning of a brutally tough stretch of games for Central Catholic. The Raiders will travel to Andover on Friday night before taking on St. John’s Prep, who owns one of Central’s three losses, at the IAABO Board 130 Classic. If they win that game, they will play the winner of Sunday’s game between Lynn English and Springfield Central. Even with matchups looming against and archrival in Prep and potentially the defending state champion in Springfield Central, Nault wants his team to take things one game at a time.
“Andover is the toughest place in the state to play," he said. "Right now, all we care about is going into Andover on Friday night and getting a win.”