BOSTON -- By the time the state basketball semifinals rolled around Monday at the TD Garden, most assumed Division 1 South champion Catholic Memorial was on a collision course to meet presumed Western Mass. champion Springfield Putnam for the state championship.
It had gained notoriety for its ability to put NBA-like scores on teams with relative ease. By all accounts, it was going to do the same to Central Catholic Monday.
That was not the case, however. The Red Raiders took away CM’s strengths, played the antithesis of the way the South champion wanted to play and came away with the 79-66 victory.
In the end, it is Central Catholic that is playing for the Division 1 State Championship on Saturday. The Raiders will face the winner of Tuesday night's other semifinal between the aforementioned Putnam and Central Mass. champion St. John's of Shrewsbury.
“Nobody predicted us to win this game,” said Central Catholic coach Rick Nault. “We’ve been talking all week about, why not us? Why not us? The kids believed that, and we’ve got one more against an extremely tough opponent.”
The game started off probably as worse as it could for Central. By the end of the first quarter, the team had surrendered 22 points and committed seven team fouls. That meant Catholic Memorial was shooting free throws for an entire quarter.
One game before the state championship, that is a significant disadvantage the team put itself in. No team wants to give the other that many scoring chances, and especially not against a team that is already as potent offensively as CM.
“That was not the tempo we wanted to play at,” said Nault. “I had said to the guys that I wanted to play in the 60’s, not in the 80’s. Twenty-two points in the first quarter, and the foul situation, was not how we wanted to go. We talked at halftime about really slowing things down and adjusting our pace, and breaking down their defense a little bit.”
Central seemed to settle down in the second quarter and get the game under control. It took the lead late in the second quarter on a sequence that saw Tyler Nelson hit his only three-pointers of the game. After missing a few early on, he hit two on back-to-back possessions within two minutes of each other to give Central a 33-28 lead.
“In the first quarter I think we came out a little antsy, but after that we knew we could stay in the game,” said Central’s Aaron Hall. “We knew it was going to be a good game the whole time so the coaches tried to relax us and get our confidence back up. At halftime, we knew what we had to do and just came out hard.”
The two teams battled back and forth trading the lead in the third. A Tyler Nelson steal and layup helped feed the team momentum going into the final quarter.
Catholic Memorial cut the Central lead to four early in the fourth when Guilien Smith (26 points, 6 rebounds) converted an and-one opportunity after getting fouled in the lane.
Central’s lead grew back up to eight after Nick Cambio (27 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists) scored back to back buckets from the low block, the second off a feed from freshman Kevin Fernandez.
Cambio made his home on the block Monday and was one of the main catalysts for Central’s victory.
“They had one big guy, Gerard Adams, in there who is a big kid,” he said. “So they put a small guy on me so it was going to be a mismatch, so we just got the ball down low.”
Out of their comfort zone: The biggest key to Central’s victory was its ability to move Catholic Memorial’s bigs off their positions and get clean looks at the basket. When CM went to its full court press, it kept Gerard Adams in the paint as its last line of defense in transition.
Central’s press break requires a guard to inbound the ball and get it to a player on the baseline. Then it likes to pass the ball up the court using the triangle passing lanes the wing players create with whoever is in the middle of the court. If all goes as planned, Central will end up two-on-one with the defense’s lone big.
This happened multiple times Monday. Central broke the CM press effectively, which often left Cambio or Aaron Hall in a two-on-one against Adams. One would wait until the moment when Adams slid over and committed to the ball handler before eventually scoring an easy basket off a dump off pass from the left block.
“I think it was a natural reaction that they had to change their position,” said Hall (18 points, 8 rebounds). “They had to come over and get the guard, and that left one of the bigs down low. I know I had a few, Nick (Cambio) had a few. I know Pat (Sullivan, 6 points) had a few down low on the break, so I guess the game plan worked.”
Quite the diversion: Everyone knows about Tyler Nelson by now. Central’s sharpshooting guard had played varsity basketball for the past four years. His game has evolved as he physically has evolved. Over the past four seasons, he has become Central’s go-to player in crunch time and Nault has even declared him as the best player he has coached during his eight years coaching at Central Catholic. He is widely respected for his ability to shoot successfully from anywhere on the court, most recently being a 15-point second half performance in the Division 1 North final Saturday.
Monday was the rare occasion when he was not counted upon to be the team’s primary scorer. Instead, he was more of a facilitator and secondary option to Cambio and Hall.
Nelson finished the game with 16 points and 10 defensive rebounds. With the team set to play for a state championship Saturday, it was the kind of game that put the rest of the state on notice that Central Catholic is more than just one player.
“He controlled the whole game because he demands so much attention,” said Nault. “He frees up other people. He controls the ball and always makes the right pass. It is a comforting feeling that we got balanced scoring, that we had a freshman in Kevin Fernandez (8 points, 7 assists) that really made some big plays creating and drawing for our bigs. Hopefully whatever team we play in the finals will understand that we’re a balanced team.”
Up next: There will be no rest for the weary. The Central Catholic coaching staff will get back to work tomorrow preparing for whoever its opponent will be Saturday. Because the team has been going seemingly nonstop with its President’s Day tournament and a regular season makeup date against Andover, Nault decided his team deserves a day off Tuesday.
The same can not be said for his coaching staff. He and his assistants will head to the DCU Center in Springfield to scout the Putnam vs. St. John’s game tomorrow night. The players and coaching staff will get back on the court Wednesday to begin its preparations for Saturday night.