Roosevelt Ave. rivalry renewed in D1 West Final

The Western Mass. Division 1 boys' basketball final resembles more of a city title matchup between Springfield rivals Putnam Vocational and the defending state champion, Central.

The two schools -- separated by a little more than a mile -- have each played 22 games, but have yet to share the hardwood until Saturday's championship bout at Curry Hicks Cage, on the campus of UMass Amherst.

When the Beavers topped West Springfield, and the Golden Eagles outlasted Holyoke in Wednesday's semifinals in Springfield, it set the stage for the biggest question in the region to be answered -- Who is better, Central or Putnam?

"I've been wanting to play them all year," Central captain Kamari Robinson said on Thursday.

At different points this season, each has been regarded as the top team in the area. It with Central's No. 1 preseason ranking in ESPNBoston.com's statewide poll, then transitioning to Putnam's local dominance, not dropping a game until Feb. 12 -- a loss to West Side with a shorthanded lineup.

"Both (teams) are talking," Robinson said. "We're going to talk of course, but we both have respect for each other."

That respect has developed long before the season began in November. It started in the city of Springfield, with players like Robinson and Putnam guard Dizel Wright sharing a travel team while playing with and against Beavers junior forward David Murrell over the years.

Yet for 32 minutes, Springfield bragging rights are one the line, something both city schools realize and would like to hold over the other one for the next calendar year.

Putnam played the first of two seminfinals at American International College Wednesday night and took the rubber match against West Side, cruising to a 64-42 win. After the win, when asked who the Beavers wanted to win the next game, Murrell made it clear.

"Hopefully Central," Murrell said after pouring in a game-high 22 points and 11 rebounds. "Everybody is saying that we can't beat anybody, hopefully we can prove to Central that we can win Western Mass."

Murrell and senior forward Kayjuan Bynum (16 points, 14 boards) have frontline that, although undersized, can battle with Central's 6-foot-5 Robinson and 6-foot-8 Chris Baldwin.

Match that with the team's willingness to defend, especially on the perimeter, it could end Central's reign over Western Mass. The forwards for Putnam and Central will battle inside, but the guard play is still critical, as it usually is in Western Mass. Central replaced three of four rotation guards from last season's championship run.

Putnam is young but long on the perimeter, with sophomores Jonathan Garcia and reserve guard Ty Nichols. Wright will likely be placed on Central's Cornelius Tyson, the hero of the 2012 state title win over Brockton with 16 points of four 3-pointers, all in the second half.

Putnam opened a new school this fall, and since William Shepard took over the program four seasons ago, he has begun to usher in a new basketball power in the birthplace of basketball.

Central has won two of the last four Western Mass. titles, and has been the home to of the finest players to come through the state. Ten-year NBA veteran Travis Best comes immediately to mind; ironically, his most memorable high school performance came in a 1991 win over Putnam, in which Best scoreed 81 points in a 143-85 victory -- records that stand to this day.

Putnam's success is shadowed in comparison, reaching the sectional final for the first time since 1984.

The Beavers have displayed they don't shy away from a big game, with the best example being Wednesday's win over West Side. The two split the regular season games, though, in both occasions neither team was at full strength. In the semifinals both teams had their best squads on the floor and Putnam proved to be the superior team.

"They play hard, all 32 minutes," Robinson said.

Putnam is looking to shift the powers in Springfield city ball and has that chance Saturday. The question will inevitably be answered. Is Central add to its tradition and remain the city's top team or will Putnam silence the doubters and officially take the top spot in Western Mass.

"It'll be good to play them and see who's really No. 1," Bynum said.