DANVERS, Mass. -- St. John’s Prep’s Josh Syska was mobbed by his team at halfcourt, believing his team's Division 1 Quarterfinal matchup against Andover had ended. Seconds earlier, Syska had hit a baseline jumper to put Prep ahead 48-46.
In a last-ditch effort, Andover charged up the floor. Sophomore David Giribaldi received a pass at halfcourt and dribbled up the right sideline. As the seconds ticked off the clock, he noticed he had no room to work with on that side of the floor, so he cut left toward the basket.
When he almost got to the right elbow, he elevated, his momentum keeping him going left. The buzzer sounded as he got the shot off. It bounced around the rim and rolled into the basket -- but did he get the shot off in time?
Both benches emptied, with players and coaches alike signaling it was a made basket or it didn’t go off in time, whichever benefited their team. The initial call on the floor was no shot. After emphatic demonstrations from both coaches, the three referees conferred with one another to try and come up with a consensus opinion. They reversed the decision, calling the basket good.
The teams went into an overtime, where Andover came away with a 62-59 victory. Andover (16-6) moves on to the D1 North semifinals, where it will face archrival Central Catholic for an unprecedented fourth time this seaosn, but there will always be a group wondering if it should be there at all.
“It was definitely late, but I don’t know, they didn’t hear it I guess, so I guess they didn’t want to call it,” said St. John’s Prep (19-3) coach Sean Connolly.
It is difficult to fault Andover coach Dave Fazio for wanting the call switched, with his team’s season hanging in the balance on the result of one jump shot.
“I saw the ball go in the basket,” he said. “That was it. I just saw the ball go in the basket. If they took that away from our kids, I think I’d still be laying on the court right now. They’d have to put me in handcuffs.”
The four-minute overtime period had the intensity of a championship game. No lead got above three points, and no lead was safe. In the final two minutes, it changed four times.
With 45 seconds remaining, Andover’s Sam Dowden (19 points, five rebounds, three blocks) went to the free throw line to try and convert an and-one opportunity. He made the free throw, giving Andover a 60-58 lead.
Twenty seconds later, on the SJP possession, Jake Burt (three points, seven rebounds) was fouled and went to the line. He hit one of two. There was a held ball on the ensuing rebound, awarded to Andover. Chris Dunn (eight points, three rebounds) took the inbounds pass and was immediately fouled.
This was a chance for the senior to redeem himself after having an off shooting night. He stepped to the line, having asked for the opportunity to put the game away.
“We’re in the huddle and he said, ‘I want to shoot them,” said Fazio. “Okay. When your senior captain says he wants to shoot them, you get the ball to your senior captain. He stepped up and made them.”
He made one of two. Prep got the ball back with a chance to tie. While driving to the basket, Drex Costello (11 points, 4 rebounds) was called for a travel, giving the ball back to Andover. Again, the ball was inbounded to Dunn, and again, he made one of two free throws.
“I knew it was my time to step up,” said Dunn. “I missed two, but luckily I got a couple to go down. I’m always ready to step up.”
Plight from the stripe: As the stakes get higher and the competition gets tougher, every point matters. Games are often decided at the free throw line, where ironically there is no one guarding you and no hand in your face to alter your shot. A strong case can be made that if either team was better from the free throw line, the outcome could have been much less dramatic.
As a team, Andover was 17-of-31 from the line, while St. John’s Prep was 17-of-33.
“I don’t know if it was a mental thing or what,” said Connolly. “One of the main reasons we lost the game is free throw shooting. But the kids played hard, so what are you gonna do?”
Giribaldi steps up: After not scoring a point in the entire first half, David Giribaldi finished with 12. Outside of the shot from the elbow to tie the game at the end of regulation, he also put away a three-pointer in overtime from the left corner to tie the game at 53. It stopped the Prep momentum when it could have pulled away with two minutes left in overtime.
So how did he increase his productivity from half to half? Did he refocus in the locker room at halftime? Was there some inspirational pep talk someone gave that made him play differently?
Nope. It was all in the shoes.
“Actually, I was wearing a different pair of shoes, and that’s what was really messing with me,” said the sophomore. “I slipped a couple times out there, it was absolutely killing me. I couldn’t make any moves, and then I got the new shoes and it was a whole different game. I had my Kobe’s on, and switched to my Hyper Dunks, and it made all the difference. I thought the Kobe’s were the choice, but apparently not.”
When he isn’t crediting his sneaker choice for his success, the guard is lauded for his mental and physical toughness on the court. That was part of the reason why Fazio felt comfortable leaving him on the court in crunch time of a playoff game.
“He’s relentless, and he’s the most fearless kid we’ve ever had in our program,” said the coach. “He is a sophomore. He fears nobody. He can kick the ball out of bounds, make a bad defensive play, and then come down and hit a three. The kid is fearless.”
Injuries pile up: Two key players had to miss time for SJP Friday. Midway through the fourth quarter, senior guard Tyler Dooley walked off the court gingerly with an ankle issue. He never sat down or took his sneakers off. Instead, he paced the sideline, trying to shake off whatever was wrong. He reentered the game minutes later, showing his will and toughness, especially with the game on the line.
Throughout the game, Dooley (13 points, 5 rebounds) was facilitating for his teammates and also finding success driving to the basket off the dribble. He was giving Andover fits on both ends of the floor.
“That kid is just impossible to keep in front,” said Fazio. “Tyler Verrette kept him in front tonight, and that’s a pretty amazing job. (Dooley) is amazing. He’s a great player.”
Josh Syska also had to come off the court because of an ankle issue. After aggravating an already-existing injury, he came off the court and had his ankle taped by the team trainer. With more enforcement around the injury, he returned to the game. He had 16 points and 14 rebounds before fouling out in overtime.
Fourth time's the charm? With both Andover and Central Catholic winning Friday, it sets up a rematch of Merrimack Valley Conference foes in the D1 North semifinals. Central owns three victories over its rival already this season. The Warriors were not ready to look ahead Friday night, but were nonchalant about facing any one particular opponent.
“I don’t even care about the next round right now,” said Fazio.
“It’s just the next step for us,” said Chris Dunn. “Any team that is going to play us, we’re ready to play.”