SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -– Just when the Central lead looked insurmountable, Matt Knezoic gave the Albany Academy offense just the pick-up that it needed.
Knezovic (16 points), who knocked down four threes, nailed two treys in the final two minutes to bring Albany Academy from down 10 in the final minutes. Thanks to some big shots and high-pressure defense down the stretch, the Cadets managed to pull out a 75-73 victory over Springfield Central at the Hoophall Classic.
Zavia Williams led Springfield Central with 18 points, while junior center Chris Baldwin totaled 12 points and 14 rebounds.
“Tough loss. We did so many good things out there: pressing, running, doing some real good things," Central coach Jack O'Brien said. "We turned it over, turnovers will kill you and turnovers killed us. We looked erratic against pressure and that just opened up the floodgates for them to get some momentum."
The Eagles committed 25 turnovers total, including 14 in the second half and six in the final three minutes of the game. When Albany Academy began pressuring Central’s guards fullcourt, the Eagles began to unravel.
“There’s nothing better than taking care of the ball. That’s the big thing, we had 25 turnovers and a lot of them came in that fourth quarter. When they’re going fast, we’ve got to go slow and take our time. We rushed, and that led to errors…stuff that you don’t see every day,” O’Brien said. “It was self-enduced turnovers. I don’t want to take anything away from them, but I thought it was more self-enduced turnovers and erratic stuff.”
Baldwin missed two free throws at the line to extend the lead, then Knezovic canned a three-pointer to tie the game at 73 with three seconds left, giving Central the ball with only a few moments to make an attempt to score following their timeout.
“Even at the end, we’re up three and if we make one of those free throws, that’s basketball, but if we make one then it’s a four point game," O'Brien said. "You always debate ‘do you foul or not?’ but I thought it was a real deep three and our guy was right there. It was an NBA three, a tough shot."
Out of the timeout, star quarterback Cody Williams made an attempt to throw a full-court pass to Baldwin, who was standing at the opposite high post. Williams put a little too much power on the pass though, as the ball bounced off the ceiling and therefore possession arrow was awarded to Albany Academy.
“There were three seconds to go, we were trying to get the ball to Chris in the paint. If we didn’t get it to Chris, he was going to try to tap it to one of those three guys -- it’s something we’ve done in the past,” O’Brien said. “We’re trying to get it to him and if he can’t get it, he’s going to pass it to one of those three guys on the perimeter.”
With inconsistent guard play for a lot of the second half, O’Brien was wary of trusting one of his guards to be able to get the ball down the floor in the little time left, the football-style pass was the only way the coach saw his team having the potential to score to win the game.
“We were struggling so much there, I was nervous of that," he said. "That’s why I brought Chris back in the end of the game. Five seconds, six seconds we might try to get it and go.”
Because the possession arrow was given to Albany Academy, the Cadets received the ball from the spot where Williams threw the pass, right under the basket, with three seconds left. In that time, Knezevich caught the inbounds pass and drove to the rim before getting fouled and hitting two game-winning free throws to complete the comeback victory.
Z. Williams a bright spot for Central: Zavia Williams, who was the game-high scorer with 18 points, has shown quite a progression playing for O’Brien after previously not having any varsity basketball experience. Williams, who plays AAU basketball in the offseason for Expressions Elite, has emerged as a reliable scorer down the stretch for the Golden Eagles.
“Zavia has never played varsity basketball and a lot of the other kids haven’t either. It’s a learning experience, there’s nothing else you can say. Even at the end he stepped out of bounds near our bench with a four point lead," O’Brien said. “Sometimes he’s erratic, but he does a lot of things well. He’s doing a good job. For three quarters I thought he was great. It was a game we should have won, I thought we totally outplayed them. You just have to move to the next one, that’s all you can do.”
The Eagles, with the loss, moved to 5-5 on the year. They’ll next be in action on Tuesday night at Commerce.