LAWRENCE, Mass. -- The post-game assortment of handshakes and daps complete, and the half-filled Lawrence High gymnasium filing out, Jaylen Alicea couldn't help but glance back on the court one last time and watch as some of his fellow Lawrence classmates spilled onto the court and began lining up at the spot atop the key where, seconds earlier, he sent the place into frenzy.
"Seems like people look up to me," the Lancers' senior floor general smiled sheepishly. "I guess they admired the shot. Probably not as much as I did, though. That shot means the world to me."
After all, this was a career-defining moment for the 5-foot-10 senior, who struggled mightily from the field but stepped up without hesitation in the biggest moment of the No. 20 Lancers' game with Merrimack Valley rival No. 5 Andover last night. With 3.7 seconds left and the shot clock on its last tick, Alicea rolled off a screen, pump-faked one of the state's premier defenders as he gathered the ball at the top of the key, and nailed the three-pointer to deliver a 59-56 win for Lawrence (9-4).
This wasn't exactly a perfect night for Alicea, who finished with nine points on 4 of 14 from the field -- including 1 for 7 on three's. And 30 seconds earlier his defender, highly-touted senior guard Joe Bramanti, almost delivered the win for the Golden Warriors (8-3) after stripping the ball from Alicea as he caught a pass up top. With the open court, the 6-foot-3 Bramanti drove down the lane, and was fouled as he sank the layup for a 56-56 tie, but missed the ensuing free throw.
But with time winding down, and facing overtime, the Lancers drew up a play that was initially supposed to go inside to 6-foot-6 center Jesse Hiraldo (10 points, 11 rebounds). When the play broke down, senior guard Darwin Pereyra paused for a few seconds at the right wing before instinctively throwing it back out top to Alicea for the winner.
Bramanti (19 points) then rushed up a half-court shot that clanked off the rim as the buzzer sounded.
"I mean, you know, he didn’t play well offensively all game, and we kept telling him to stay with it, stay with it, stay with it," Lawrence head coach Paul Neal said. "And at the end, they executed. They got him a screen, and he got a wide open shot and he knocked it down. You know, big win for us, big win for the program. Confidence-wise, it was good for Jaylen, as our leader, to get a win for us."
Said Alicea, "They couldn’t get him (Hiraldo) the ball, so I had to do what I had to do, and I got open for them. And as soon as I got the ball, I knew it was my time, that I had to shoot the ball, and I didn’t play well this game. That was the biggest shot I hit all day, and it means the world to me."
From tipoff, this was a back and forth game with slim leads. With under three minutes to go, Alicea crossed up his defender on the left wing and sunk a 16-footer for a 56-51 lead, the largest of the game. Down at the other end, Craig Luschenat (14 points) closed the lead to 56-54 with three free throws, followed by Bramanti's steal and layup.
All game long, the Warriors found ways to combat Lawrence's size advantage, to great results. Six-foot-two sophomore Sam Dowden (11 points) did the dirty work down low, facing the big-bodied Hiraldo man-up, and the Warriors held a 10-2 advantage on offensive rebounds in the first half. To manufacture points, the Warriors repeatedly used handoffs to create quick screens for their swift-triggered shooters; they also had success in drawing Hiraldo out of the blocks and slipping behind him, but players like Yadoris Arias showed poise in deflecting passing lanes.
Lawrence led 27-26 at the break, and 44-42 headed into the final stanza. Andover took two brief leads in this one, including one with four minutes left when Dowden converted a three-point play off an inbounds pass, for a 49-48 lead.
From an emotional standpoint, this was quite the yo-yo.
"Brutal, but it’s great. It’s a fight," Andover head coach Dave Fazio said. "I mean, that’s what it’s about, it’s a good fight. You know, they hit us with the last shot, and I got the best defender in the state on the kid. So, at the end of the day, it’s OK. It’s a great game, it’s a great experience for our kids, and we’re just going to get better, you know."
And for Alicea, it was the good kind of emotional.
"Andover’s a great team," he said. "We just know they come out to play hard every day, every game we play them. We haven’t beaten them since I was a sophomore, so this means a lot to me, to my coach, to the people of Lawrence. Everything."