LAWRENCE, Mass. -- A.J. Pettway’s only points of the game could not have come at a better time for Central Catholic.
With the No. 9 Raiders clinging to a one-point lead on No. 7 Cambridge Rindge & Latin with 1:12 to go in the championship game of the President’s Day Roundball Classic, the sophomore stepped to the line.
As though he was not feeling an ounce of pressure, he drained both. Normally those shots are reserved for Tyler Nelson (14 points), but the senior was on the bench after suffering an ankle injury earlier in the game. He hit four more free throws later in the game secure the 66-57 victory for his team. Those six points were the first and only points he scored the entire game.
“He’s a sophomore, you put the ball in his hands and he knocks down six in a row,” said Central Catholic (17-4) coach Rick Nault. “Usually those go to Tyler, but we’ve been making sure we get the ball in his hands late in the game. We have a sophomore making plays late in the game so that is something I was happy with.”
After saying Sunday he felt his team was going into Monday as an underdog, it certainly did not seem to be the case once the game started. Cambridge (14-5) was behind by double-digits for most of the second and third quarters.
It was not until it went to a full-court trap press in the fourth quarter that it was able to close the lead. Because Nelson was on the bench with the ankle injury, Central’s backcourt duties fell on Pettway, freshman Kevin Fernandez, and junior Alex Parent. The trio initially had difficulty getting the ball to the middle of the floor which left Pettway trapped in the corner amidst heavy pressure.
When Central did execute its press break effectively, it lead to open transition layups for Pat Sullivan (13 points, 9 rebounds) and Nick Cambio (14 points, 8 rebounds) near the basket.
“We thought we might want to press earlier, but when we got caught behind, we were a little bit nervous about them possible running the score up a even more,” said Cambridge coach Lance Dottin. “When it got to the fourth quarter, we made a decision that we were going to go out and change up some things in our press to give them a different look, and it was able to be effective for us.”
As the fourth quarter continued, Central’s lead dwindled down from 13 points to eight, and then down even further until Pettway’s free throws gave Central the lead for good.
“I thought we were in control the first three quarters,” said Nault. “Once they put on that press, we buckled a little bit. We got rattled. We had a sophomore and a freshman in the backcourt and that inexperience and youth hurt us, but they made plays at the end when they had to.”
Nelson (ankle) questionable for Wednesday: With 1:18 to go in the first half, Nelson jumped as though he was going to attempt a three-pointer from the right wing, but changed his mind in midair and passed the ball off to his right. A Cambridge defender leaned forward to challenge the potential shot, and Nelson fell awkwardly on his right ankle.
He laid on the ground for about a minute in visible pain, but was able to get up and walk off the court under his own power. He sat on the bench for the remainder of the first half and the entire second quarter. At the start of the fourth quarter, Nault inserted him back into the lineup. Nelson played the first two minutes of the final frame, even hitting a straightaway three-pointer, but was removed for the remainder of the game at the discretion of his coach.
The extent of the injury was unknown as of Monday night, but Nault does not expect him to be in the lineup Wednesday against rival Andover.
“He wanted to give it a go, but I told him if I saw that he was limping or not full strength that I would pull him right away and that’s what we did,” said Nault. “You could tell that he was hobbling and hurting pretty good so we didn’t want to risk anything.
“We don’t know how bad that is yet, but hopefully it’s not too bad and we can get him back in a couple days. I would say that he’s probably not going to play Wednesday.”
Silver linings: Even though Cambridge could not complete the comeback, Dottin still felt as though he could take positives out of the game as his team prepares for the state tournament. One of those could have been the play of Jakigh Dottin, who contributed all of his 10 points came in the final quarter in the midst of the comeback. Another could have been the play of Tevin Charles, the junior forward who finished with 15 points and 8 rebounds to help keep his team in the game.
Overall, it was his team’s mentality that he felt can carry over to later in the season.
“I like the fact that we were able to fight back and get into the game with the kids that were on the floor,” said the coach. “The guys that were playing towards the end were not our regular starters. That was a disappointing part about tonight, that some of our starters just didn’t play their best game.
“But for us, we have to look at ourselves in the mirror and see what it is that we’ll be able to do as a team to get better and obviously prepare for the coming weeks. You’re going to see everybody from Central, to Andover, to Lynn English, to Everett, to St. John’s Prep, you name it. We really have to get prepared.”
Sullivan squares up: Monday saw the continued evolution of Pat Sullivan as a difference maker for Central. According to Nault, the junior started the season as the 14th man on the bench but has worked his way up to consistent minutes. The team needed him to play a lot since starting center Aaron Hall was in and out of the game with foul trouble. He fouled out of the game with 3:01 left in the fourth, which forced Sullivan to play in crunch time.
Nick Cambio, the team’s starting forward and co-captain, was also in and out of the game with foul trouble. He picked up his third foul with 5:10 left in the second quarter, so Sullivan again was thrust into a situation where he had to play big minutes.
He finished the game with 13 points and 9 rebounds. His presence and growth as a player could prove to be crucial later in the season as the pressure mounts in each round of the state tournament.
“I just try to go hard in practice and get better every day,” Sullivan said. “When my time came, I had an opportunity to step up and I guess I did. It feels really good.”