LOWELL, Mass. -- After Wednesday night, the Division 1 North tournament is officially wide open.
No. 4 Central Catholic -- once the consensus No. 1 team in ESPNBoston.com's statewide poll -- fell 63-41 to No. 8 Lowell in each team’s last regular season game before the MIAA state tournament commences.
Is there a favorite in Division 1 North? Absolutely not. As proven Wednesday, anyone can beat anyone on any day.
It was also a sort of a statement game for Lowell, considering when the teams played on Jan. 18, Central won handily 70-49. Lowell wanted to make two things clear: that was not an accurate representation of who it is, and going into the tournament it is not a team to be taken lightly.
“For us, they’ve always kind of been that thorn in our side,” said Lowell (17-3) coach Scott Boyle. “You have to get through them to win something. So for us, this is a very important game. Not just to win, but to come out and play well. I wanted us to show some grit and toughness, and that’s what we did. They embarrassed us pretty good down there (last time we played).”
Lowell’s Drew Healy (13 points, 10 rebounds) was a force down low right from the start. He was able to establish himself down on the low block and use his body to carve out space to receive entry passes. That proved to be crucial, especially against Central’s (17-5) smaller, three-guard lineup.
“When he’s playing well, it makes our team much different,” said Jonathan Perez (19 points). “Especially defensively. Offensively, you see what he can do, and he can get second chances for us. One-on-one, man-to-man in the post he can score, but defensively he really makes a difference for us.”
Lowell had a 17-8 lead after one quarter, and it never looked back. Behind its raucous home crowd, it never looked back, extending its lead into double-digits and keeping it there for the rest of the game.
Central did not have its most efficient night offensively. As a team, it turned the ball over 21 times and two of its starting guards (Lucas Hammel and Jamahl Lopez) did not have a single basket between them until the final minute when the game was out of reach.
Nick Cambio was Central’s strongest offensive force Wednesday, finishing with 14 points and seven rebounds.
No. 2 seed locked up: With the win, Lowell secured the No. 2 seed in the upcoming Division 1 North sectional tournament. While the cliched answer from coaches and players is that seeding doesn’t matter, you just have to play who is in front of you, Lowell went out Wednesday wanting to secure itself a home playoff game.
“That’s all we want,” said Perez. “Home games, with the crowd behind us, we play a lot better. Especially having all those seniors (nine). We love having the home crowd behind us and we can play our basketball with our crowd going for us.”
St. John’s Prep will be the No. 1 seed, while Central Catholic, Waltham, Westford, and Lynn English will round out the top six. The seedings will be unveiled Friday.
Defense delivers: Lowell’s zone defense gave Central fits Wednesday. It was the same defensive strategy it employed the first time the two teams met, but this time it had different results. Earlier in the season, the zone gave Central open looks from the outside, and it made the most of its opportunities. Wednesday, it got those same outside looks, but this time the shots were not falling.
To try and combat it, Central tried to use quick back cuts off an entry pass to the high post. Often, a guard would bring the ball down the floor, assess whether the defense was in a zone, and a post player would flash up to around the foul line. The guard would pass the ball, and the post player would quickly turn and try and feed the ball to a cutter. Over the course of the game, Lowell was able to recognize this and react quickly by closing up the passing lanes, even if it only resulted in a tipped ball out of bounds.
“I’ve always been a man defense guy,” said Boyle. “I think we can play a pretty good zone and match-up man out of it and do some good things. There were times this year when I’ve been stubborn and said we’re going to play man. Sometimes I think you have to take a step back and say this thing works, let’s use that too.”
Lowell made it a point Wednesday to keep an eye on Tyler Nelson everywhere he went. After burning them for 21 points in their first meeting, Lowell was not going to let that happen again. In various possessions, Central tried to run plays that called for Nelson to run along the baseline to the corner and spot up for a three-pointer. Sometimes this worked (he finished with 12 points, all from threes), but often a Lowell defender met him in the corner to put a hand in his face and contest his shot.
“We played with more intensity (than the first time the teams played),” said Healy. “We were playing Tyler Nelson and he was just sitting at the top hitting threes that game. Tonight, we were just recognizing him, making sure he couldn’t shoot.”
Gemmell returns: Central had been awaiting the return of its starting center Doug Gemmell. He had missed weeks of games while recovering from a concussion. Central coach Rick Nault told ESPNBoston.com last week Gemmell had been cleared by doctors, he just needed to be put through a heavy workload in practice before returning to games. In his absence, the team played a smaller lineup, choosing to play three guards and slide forward Nick Cambio over to play center.
Gemmell started Wednesday’s game on the bench. He was quickly called to action however, with just over a minute left in the first quarter. Healy had been dominating the paint offensively and Central could not contend with the 6-foot-7 big man.
Gemmell finished with four points and three rebounds, while Healy finished with a double-double.