SPRINGFIELD, Mass. –- Some say the hardest thing to do in team sports is beat the same team three times. For Springfield Central, this task was made that much harder by a scrappy Holyoke team that refused to go away for 31 minutes and 39 seconds, before the reigning MIAA Division 1 State Champions finally closed out their 52-48 D1 West semifinal win at American International College.
The Golden Eagles got a balanced effort from their starting unit with Kamari Robinson, Chris Baldwin and Cornelius Tyson notching 11 points apiece while cousins Ju’uan and Cody Williams dropped in 10 and nine respectively. Holyoke’s Justin White had 18 points and seven rebounds to pace Holyoke.
The game was ugly early on, at least from Central’s point of view, as Holyoke jumped out to a 9-1 lead thanks in large part to five turnovers by the Golden Eagles.
“When you play a team for the third time, especially when it’s a league opponent, it’s going to be ugly it’s not going to be pretty,” Central coach Mike Labrie said. “That certainly was not pretty.”
The two teams combined for 13 first-half turnovers with nine of them coming from Central. Holyoke featured a zone defense that kept the ball out of Baldwin and Robinson’s hands and allowed the Purple Knights to lead for all but 4.2 seconds of the half.
On the last possession of the half, Tyson drove the lane, drew a foul and made the layup to give Central their first lead with 4.2 seconds remaining in the first half. The basket capped a 13-5 run that gave Central a 26-25 lead at the break and showcased Tyson’s big-game ability.
“We don’t know [what changes],” Robinson said of Tyson’s ability. “In the regular season he’s a completely different person then when big games come around he smartens up and plays more like him. He just calms down a little bit.”
Tyson’s big-game ability took center stage again later in the game when, after missing three consecutive free throws, he rebounded to hand out two assists on back-to-back plays. The first, a three by Ju’uan Williams, gave Central a 46-45 lead with 1:39 to play while the second, a two by Cody Williams, gave the Golden Eagles the breathing room they needed at 48-45.
A Cody Williams steal with 1:05 to play led to a one-and-one opportunity for Baldwin, but he would miss the front end and give Holyoke lift. Luis Vazquez would miss what would have been the game-tying three and two free throws from Ju’uan Williams appeared to ice the game.
However, on the next possession Guillermo Godreau-Rivera drove the lane and drew a trip to the line for what should have been two shots but became just one after Baldwin blocked the ball off the backboard on the way down and forced a goaltending call.
Godreau-Rivera made the free throw, closing the gap to 50-48, but two free throws from Robinson meant Central would return to the Western Mass. Championship.
“Perseverance,” Labrie said. “We persevered down the stretch against a tough opponent for the third time this year.”
All-Springfield Finale: For the second consecutive season the final game of the Western Mass. boy’s basketball schedule will be between two Springfield schools. After besting Springfield Commerce last year at the Curry Hicks Cage, Central will take on a formidable Springfield Putnam squad in the Western Massachusetts Championship on Saturday.
Putnam advanced to the final by beating West Springfield 64-42 in the first game of the semifinal double-header. With Central’s tough non-league schedule, the two schools did not meet during the regular season making Saturday’s game a winner-take-all battle.
“I know they’re just as hyped about the game as we are,” Kamari Robinson said. “We’re psyched to play each other and to see who’s better and settle all the mouths and the beef...and all the talk. We’ve got a chance to play each other and we have to play good.”
In January, Central played Manchester (Conn.) and West Springfield at the Hoophall Classic for two of their non-league contests. The other two came at the IAABO 130 Classic last month, where they lost to Central Catholic and Lynn English. With so much on the line –- the sectional championship, bragging rights, city supremacy –- Saturday’s contest should be an instant classic.
“I think it should be a great ball game,” Labrie said. “They work extremely hard, they match up well with us size wise. It may not be pretty, but it should be fun.”
The Confident Cousins Williams: Cody and Ju’uan Williams are most at home on the football field, starring for back-to-back Super Bowl finalists at quarterback and wide receiver, respectively. But this season they have become two of the most important players on the court for Central on the basketball court as well.
The biggest reason for their emergence: supreme confidence.
“They don’t know what pressure is. They make a mistake it’s over. It’s done. It’s passed,” Labrie said. “They’re very confident in their abilities and I’m very happy to have them on the team.”
The cousins Williams combined to score seven of Central’s last nine points for the game with none bigger than Ju’an’s three with 1:39 to play. The three came after back-to-back misses from three and was just the second he hit for the game.
Cody made his impact with a baseline jumper that stretched the lead to three and a steal on the next possession that almost iced the game for the Golden Eagles. Ju’an’s pair of free throws with 25.7 seconds to play snapped a cold streak from the line.
“We work as a team all the time and we have the No. 1 and 2 players in Western Mass. but if other people need to get called to step up that’s what we need to do and we did that tonight,” Cody said.
Cody and Ju’uan have already won one Western Mass. championship this year. What’s one more for the confident cousins?