LAWRENCE, Mass. –- Sean Connolly’s hands shot up in near disbelief as Drex Costello pulled up for a 22-footer with the game tied and six seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Costello’s three-point attempt swooshed, pushing Prep (18-1) to a 64-62 victory over Central Catholic (16-4) in front of a standing-room only crowd at the IAABO Board 130 Classic.
After the game, Connolly candidly described his thought process as he saw his captain pull up for the shot.
“Uh, what are you doing?” he said with a laugh. “It wasn’t a great shot, but he’s hit big shots for us all year...He’s been our guy at the end of shot clocks and the end of games all year. Kid hits tough shots all the time.”
Costello -- who was 0-for-4 from three-point range through the first 29 minutes of the game -- hit two deep treys in the final two minutes, including the aforementioned game-winner.
“I really didn’t know how much time was left, I thought it was going to be a buzzer-beater,” Costello said. “Then I looked up at the clock and there was five seconds left. If I didn’t hit the [three-pointer] before, I wouldn’t have took that shot. I felt the confidence, I felt like I could make it.”
Costello, who has been known all years as Prep’s go-to offensive player and key defensive stopper, finished with 16 points in all. Junior guard Quentin Bullen also added 16 for Prep, doing so on just six shots from the field.
Bullen comes out strong: Bullen wasn’t even sure he’d be ready to play against Central on Sunday night. He hasn’t practiced for the past few days because of an ankle injury, but said he couldn’t miss out on an opportunity to help his team beat Central on their own floor.
“I figured I’d throw on the brace and go out there and try, this was a big game,” he said.
Bullen provided the spark that helped Prep develop a 17 point halftime lead. He scored 14 points in the first half, it was a confidence booster that the sharpshooter needed.
“That was the first time that he really felt the confidence that he could score like that,” Costello said. “It was awesome to see him do that, he’s one of my best friends, it was just great to see him do that.”
He’s known as a shooter who can heat up at any point in time, but Bullen has uncharacteristically had some trouble shooting the ball this year. He said he never got down on himself though, and the support from his captain was a big reason why.
“I haven’t been shooting too well this season, but Drex keeps telling me ‘keep on shooting, keep on shooting’,” Bullen said.
On Bullen, Connolly added, “He’s a guy we’re going to need if we’re going to make a run in the tournament. We need him to give us those big minutes like he did tonight.”
Switching to zone: Staring down a 17-point halftime deficit, Central coach Rick Nault had some inspiring words for his team in the locker room at halftime, especially as Prep had already beaten Central one other time this year.
“I said that considering we lost to them in the first game, I thought [our guys] would have more pride in their performance than what we had in the first half," he said. "They came out in the second half with a different approach, and brought us back in the game.”
A big reason why Central was able to close down the lead was because of the extended 2-3 zone that Nault integrated for the majority of the third quarter and the first couple minutes of the fourth. Bullen hit two threes in the first half for Prep, while sophomore Ben Judson hit one of his own, but Nault thought that Prep was having far too easy a time with getting open shots.
“[It was] just to give a different look, we were kind of struggling for a bit," Nault said. "I thought it helped us tonight, it changed the tempo of the game a little bit. It allowed us to creep back in [the game]. We had a chance to make a play and get the win, but unfortunately we weren’t able to do so.”
Central appeared to be gaining momentum after junior guard Tyler Nelson hit a three-pointer at the end of the third quarter to bring the Raiders within five. Minutes later, Nelson hit another three-pointer to tie the game at 53 with just under five minutes to go. The Raiders led until Costello hit the first of his two threes in the last two minutes.
At moments in the second half, Connolly said the zone put his guards into a funk.
“It’s just a little different look, you’re not running your man sets," Connolly said. "They just changed it up to get us out of our rhythm a little bit, but I thought we did an alright job attacking it. When they went man again, I thought we were too stationary--dribbling the ball around a little too much instead of moving it.”
Berroa doesn’t quit: It was a bittersweet senior night celebration for Joel Berroa. The 6-foot-4 forward came out and played perhaps the best game of his career, but even behind 25 points, 11 rebounds, and five blocked shots, he was not quite able to lift the Raiders to a win.
Nelson (15 points) was unable to do much scoring in the first half because of all the attention Prep’s defense was giving him, while forward Nick Cambio (eight points, 12 rebounds) was often forced out of his comfort zone by Prep’s interior defenders. Through it all, Berroa’s effort was probably the only consistent one that Central saw all night.
“He’s a man, he played like a man," Nault said. "The kid is so passionate in everything he does, he plays with so much intensity and wants it so bad.
“I said to him in the locker room that I was extremely proud of our comeback, but [also] the way he played for 32 minutes. He tried to make every play to help us win on the offensive end, and he had some huge blocks on the defensive end. My heart hurts for him right now.”
Costello saw firsthand the amount of second and third chance opportunities that Berroa gave Central over the course of the game. After Costello hit the three to put Prep up 64-61 with five seconds left, the Eagles fouled Tyler Nelson to put Central at the free throw line with under three seconds to go.
Nelson made the first, and Berroa got the rebound after Nelson intentionally missed the second attempt. Berroa’s putback attempt, however, was off the mark. After squeezing out the win, Costello had nothing but complimentary words for his opponent.
“Joel Berroa is an animal," Costello said. "He’s one of the hardest kids to box out that I’ve ever seen. Our big guys did their best on him, but he killed us on the boards.”
Central Catholic will take on Springfield Central on Monday at 3:45 p.m. in the consolation game, while St. John’s Prep will play Lynn English at 7:15 for the IAABO Board 130 Classic title.