ANDOVER, Mass. -- With 40 seconds to go and his team ahead by six points, Central Catholic’s Tyler Nelson pulled down a defensive rebound and was fouled. He let out an audible “Yes!” because he knew he had an opportunity to extend his team’s lead and it was one step closer to victory.
He sunk four of his last five free throws, helping Central escape Andover with a 60-54 victory. With the win, Central (16-3) sweeps the three-game season series and moves another game closer to a Merrimack Valley Conference Large title.
“The rivalry we have, is something you don’t see,” said Central Catholic coach Rick Nault. “In terms of the intensity, in terms of the competitiveness, the two coaches having similar personalities. We’ve been very blessed to have some success against them over the last 6 or 7 years. There’s been a ton of games where one play here or there, the other team could’ve won. We were fortunate to make plays tonight.”
Central struggled early on to match Andover’s (13-6) intensity and execution. However, as the quarter continued, it adjusted and came back to tie the game up. Senior Jamahl Lopez -- Doug Gemmell’s replacement in the starting lineup while he recovers from a concussion -- struggled initially with the ball in his hands.
He would make his mark later in the game, with his team clinching to a single-digit lead. He (nine points, four rebounds, five steals) and Tyler Nelson (28 points, three rebounds, four steals) met defenders at halfcourt and did not let them advance the ball. Lopez had three steals in the final minutes, including one that lead to a layup and a foul.
“Coach always preaches that whenever you get called, to just be ready,” he said. “That’s how I stepped up and helped.”
Andover took a lead into the second quarter, but Central quickly took it away and never gave it back. It was not an easy win though. The lead went into double digits once early in the third quarter, but Andover fought back again and brought it down to six going into the fourth quarter.
Central went on a 12-2 run early in the third on the back of switching to a zone defense.
“I thought it changed the tempo,” said Nault. “They’re so well-coached and they execute so well on the offensive end. It worked really well the first time we played them. We were down four with about two minutes to go against them and we ended up winning the game, so we gave it a shot twice tonight. I thought we were very successful with it.”
Gemmell could return soon: Central Catholic’s starting center Doug Gemmell has missed games since suffering a concussion weeks ago. He was there Friday in his usual spot, leading his team on the court for pregame warmups. During the game, he was his usual energetic self, cheering his team on from the bench. He did not play in the game, however, but his return is getting closer.
“We’re expecting to come back, hopefully within a week,” said Nault. “He’s been cleared by doctors and passed the concussion tests, so we’re hoping to get him back real soon. He’s going to have to go through a couple long practices, to show that he’s really ready to play with physical contact during games. We’ll find out, hopefully by early next week, whether or not he’s ready to play.”
Life in the Fast Lane: With Gemmell out, Central inserted senior guard Jamahl Lopez into the starting lineup. When he is on the floor, Central has three players who can handle the basketball with Lucas Hammel and Tyler Nelson. It also gives it more speed on both ends of the floor. Joel Berroa and Nick Cambio slide down to the power forward and center positions respectively.
The team speed gave Andover troubles towards the end of the game Friday. As it tried to bring the ball up, Nelson and Lopez pressured the ball and forced turnovers at halfcourt. Whoever forced the turnover would pass ahead to the other, which lead to transition opportunities.
“Jamahl is a great on-ball defender,” said Nelson. “He really helped us tonight in pressuring (Max) Silveira (9 points, 5 rebounds), and just changed the tempo and changed the game completely.”
The three-guard lineup makes Central that much more dangerous as the state tournament approaches. Teams had grown used to the traditional two guard, two forward, and one center lineup when playing the Raiders. The smaller lineup adds another element for teams to prepare for, both offensively and defensively.
“I think it changes the way we attack defensively,” said Nault. “We’re just so much quicker. Obviously we’re not as good of a rebounding team, but by putting pressure on the ball, it allows Lucas to freelance a little bit defensively.”
Where Central can get into trouble with the lineup is in the post. When the team goes small, it forces Cambio and Berroa to play more under the basket when they are used to playing more away from it.
“It limits us in terms of our post play,” Nault added. “It limits us in terms of our ability to rebound both offensively and defensively. But it allows us to play at a faster pace. Hopefully Doug comes back soon and we’ll still use this lineup an awful lot. We like what it does for us. It allows us to play a more up-tempo game, and I think thats where a lot of our kids are comfortable playing.”
Dowden holds his own: Andover’s Sam Dowden gave Central fits down low early in the game. He had an eight-point first quarter and 12 points in the first half. Because of his familiarity playing in the post, he was able to use a series of spin moves and short jump shots against the Central bigs to score at will.
Early in the fourth quarter, he picked up his fourth foul and had to spend a majority of the half on the bench. In his absence, the Central guards were able to attack the basket more freely off the dribble. He finished the game with 13 points.
“Nick and Joel did a great job on him, they held him to one point in the second half,” said Nelson. “We really did a good job on him team-wise. A bunch of guys did a great job on him defensively denying him the ball. It was just a good team effort.”
Friday was bittersweet for the Warriors, as it was the team’s "Senior Night" as well as the return of sophomore center Connor Merinder (four points, five rebounds). He had previously missed action due to a broken left wrist, and played with a large cast. He was forced to play for extended minutes when Dowden was forced to the bench. On one baseline jumper midway through the third quarter, he shot using only his right hand.
As the state tournament approaches, Merinder will get more minutes and add another dimension for Andover. Having another big to play for and alongside Dowden will help immensely for a team that relies heavily on its outside shooting.
Gentleman's Bet: Andover coach Dave Fazio finally cashed in on a bet he had with Nault from football season. Before the two schools met in their annual Thanksgiving Day football game, the two basketball coaches made a friendly wager that whichever team lost on Thanksgiving, their coach would have to wear the other team’s colors when they met on the basketball court over the winter.
Because Andover won the football game 22-19, Nault had to wear Andover’s blue and gold Friday while coaching. He honored the bet and wore a gold polo shirt with an Andover logo. However, he got the last laugh with the victory.