LAWRENCE, Mass. -- The entire momentum and complexion of the game changed in an instant.
For 3-1/2 quarters, No. 9 Central Catholic was trying to keep up with No. 14 BC High. It could never get a lead of more than one point before BC High tied the game or took the lead back. That is, until Nick Cambio completed an and-one play to put his team up by three. Two possessions later, he was stationed on the low block anticipating a pass. After getting the feed from Tyler Nelson, he elevated and threw down a tomahawk dunk in traffic that brought Central Catholic’s entire gymnasium to life.
From there, Central went on to win 59-54 in the opening round of the President’s Day Roundball Classic.
“I saw a guard getting into the paint, and I knew the bottom guy in the defense was going to hedge up, so I was just waiting for the pass,” said Cambio (15 points, 9 rebounds). “I was setting myself up for the dunk. That was probably one of the hardest dunks I’ve thrown down in a game. It felt good.”
Central (16-4) struggled early on to establish any offensive consistency against the BC High (12-6) defense. The Eagles switched between a box-and-one, 2-3, and 1-3-1 zones all to make sure it could at least contest any Central shot while also making sure it was in a quality position for defensive rebounds.
It held Tyler Nelson, Central’s sharpshooting senior guard, to 10 points in the first half. Central was able to solve the zones in the second half and he finished the game with 27 points and 3 rebounds.
“They’re an outstanding defensive team and they take you out of what you want to do,” said Central Catholic coach Rick Nault. “I thought we made some adjustments after the half and got Nick (Cambio) involved a lot more. He was a lot more aggressive, and Tyler got going a little bit.”
With about three minutes to go, Nelson hit one of his three three-pointers from the left corner to put his team up by six points. For the next two minutes, BC High battled to try and close the lead, but Central kept it a multi-possession game.
With 23 seconds left, BC High’s Isaiah Bowman (14 points) drained a three-pointer from the left wing to cut the lead to three. Coming out of a BC High timeout, Central inbounded the ball to Tyler Nelson, who drained both free throws. Ten seconds later, Jack Loughnane (7 points, 4 rebounds, 3 steals) put back a rebound and hit the ensuing foul shot to make it 53-51. Again, Central was able to inbound the ball to Nelson, who put the game out of reach with more free throws.
Well-rounded scoresheet: It was a game where everyone had to contribute for Central Catholic, not just the usual suspects. With BC High playing a box-and-one to take away Tyler Nelson, he was quiet for a majority of the first half. This put the onus on the other starting guard, Alex Parent, to make something happen with the ball in his hands. He turned the ball over six times Sunday.
The team turned to freshman Kevin Fernandez for stretches, and the freshman responded with seven rebounds and two steals off the bench while adding energy to an offense that needed it in the second half.
“He had great energy,” said Nault. “He came up with a few steals and we got transition points out of it. I thought he defended very well. He’s a kid that, as a freshman, can challenge bigger players. They went with three bigs tonight against us and they tried to attack with that. With Kevin in there, it’s hard to post him up because he’s such an aggressive kid. I thought he was a difference for us defensively.”
Fernandez started the season in Central’s starting lineup but has transitioned into a roll off the bench. It allows him to play with the natural energy and quickness he has without putting the stress on him to have to be the team’s main ball handler as a freshman.
“He’s huge for us,” said Nelson. “He’s a young kid, he just turned 15. For him to play like that, he steps up a lot. When we have another guard like that playing at that level, it makes us a lot better, so we need that going forward.
Also contributing big minutes off the bench was junior Pat Sullivan. With Cambio on the bench early in the first half with two fouls, the team’s only experienced bigs were Sullivan and Aaron Hall. Hall picked up his fourth foul with 6:34 left in the fourth quarter, which brought in Sullivan. He had to play large portions of the game because Hall picked up fouls at inopportune times.
Hall contributed seven points and nine rebounds in the game.
Championship Final set: Central will play No. 7 Cambridge Rindge & Latin Monday in the championship game of the Roundball Classic at 7:30 p.m. The Falcons defeated New Bedford, 74-46, in the first game of the tournament. Central Catholic’s team and coaching staff were in the gym watching the first half of the game, so they got an up close and personal view of what challenges Cambridge will bring Monday.
“Phenomenal,” said Nault. “They’re long, talented, athletic. They play hard. Everyone is good off the bounce. It’s going to be a great challenge for us. I can’t tell you many games where we’ve played in our home gym and we’re underdogs. I told my guys I think we’re going in as underdogs tomorrow.”
They are a team that likes to push the pace, just like Central, which could make for an up-and-down kind of game. It could also mean each team will look to slow down the other, which would create a type of game almost no one expects from those teams.
“I think we’ll match up a little better than we did today against BC High’s three bigs,” said Nelson. “I think they play three, maybe four guards, and one big guy, which is better for us. But it’s not really about matchups at the end of the day, it’s how you play as a team.”