BABC: Connaughton carries No. 1 SJP

CHELSEA, Mass. -- While St. John’s Prep prepared to run the clock down Tuesday on its 53-49 victory over New Mission, Pat Connaughton played as if pressure was a foreign word.

Dribbling outside the left wing, the senior guard was spun around on a foul by New Mission’s Isshiah Coleman, heard the whistle and knowing it wouldn’t count, casually tossed up a 22-foot 3-pointer.

His grin rivaled the nearby Tobin Bridge when it went in.

What? No continuation?

“I was joking around with the refs, ‘Why didn’t that [count]?’” Connaughton said. “‘You gotta give me some credit for it.’”

You can thank him for the win, instead.

“A scary win,” he said.

Forced into point guard duties again, Connaughton served as a safety blanket while St. John’s Prep bore down and outlasted a late-charging New Mission team on the first day of the BABC Holiday Classic at Chelsea High School.

Steve Haladyna was near unstoppable at times for the Eagles (4-0), finishing with 23 points and 10 rebounds. The 6-foot-5 junior repeatedly curled around screens and finished entry passes in the blocks to help lift St. John’s Prep, ESPN Boston’s top-ranked MIAA boys basketball team, to an 18-point lead in the third quarter.

But New Mission -- ranked No. 4 in ESPN Boston’s poll -- starting emphasizing its attack thereafter, ditching the short-range jumpers for lay-ups, put-backs and dunks to slowly inch back. Its perimeter defense was stellar, rarely allowing uncontested 3s -- St. John’s hit two for the game -- and it dominated the free throw advantage after halftime (18-4 in attempts).

The run finally got juice, however, with four minutes to play when Haladyna fouled out. New Mission scored eight straight points to cut it to 51-49 with 35 seconds to play, Kachi Nzerem scoring six of his team-high 16 points in the quarter.

Enter Connaughton.

A bruising presence who averaged nearly 18 rebounds per game last year, he played point guard for the majority of the second straight game with St. John‘s Prep still awaiting the return of senior guard Conor Macomber (partially torn MCL). The offense still ran well, Haladyna dominating down low, Connaughton drawing attention up top.

But the Eagles fell into disarray after Haladyna’s exit, leaving Connaughton to put out the fire. He handled the ball for nearly the entire final 35 seconds dissected by three St. John’s Prep timeouts, hitting two free throws with 9.3 seconds to play before helping force New Mission into a rushed 3-point attempt in the final moments.

The Notre Dame-bound Connaughton finished with 16 points, a game-high 12 rebounds and four blocks despite playing mostly at the top of the offense. But it was his calming presence late that helped keep the Eagles perfect.

Macomber, by the way, hopes to return next week. Connaughton said next Tuesday’s game at No. 18 Boston College High is the goal.

“All of the guys step up around me, which really gives me the ability to say, ‘All right, I’ll do this, this time, and you go here,’ really distribute what people need to do, telling them where to go,” Connaughton said. “Someone can tell me when I’m doing something wrong and I can tell them when they’re doing something wrong. No one’s going to take it personally. Really, the goal is to win, to win a state championship, and that’s what we’re here to do.”

That said, St. John’s Prep still feels it’s in need of several improvements. The return of Macomber will help, but coach Sean Connolly admitted “when one of our stars go out, we struggle offensively a little bit.” It also turned the ball over 24 times amid New Mission’s constant pressure, a near repeat of the Eagles’ last opponent, East Boston.

Yet, St. John’s Prep can physically dominate when need be (44-24 rebounding edge Tuesday) and its defense was solid. Holding New Mission -- the defending Division 4 champs and current Division 2 contender -- to 49 points is an accomplishment.

“We just dug in,” Haladyna said. “We know we can improve a lot of things, but we’re still beating these really good teams. So we can only get better.”

New Mission coach Cory McCarthy feels the same way about his team.

“I think we’re still relatively new to those sort of big, big, big games,” McCarthy said. “We’re not really strong at the point position so it takes a while for us to wake up. We didn’t play as hard as we could have in the first half. No excuses, and we waited until we were down 18 points to start playing hard.

“Could we have won the game? Certainly, but we took too long to play hard.”