LAWRENCE, Mass. -- Vengeance is sweet.
Central Catholic suffered one loss by one point last season in winning its second Division 1 state championship in three seasons, a 61-60 decision to Rhode Island powerhouse Bishop Hendricken last Febuary 7. This time around, the Raiders used the size advantage in the frontcourt to return the favor, downing the seven-time defending Rhode Island state champs, 69-44, to improve to 14-1 on the season.
"That was always in our head throughout the entire week -- payback," said junior guard Luis Puello, who finished with 13 points, five assists and four steals. "We wanted to get them back, and good thing we did."
Said senior center Jimmy Zenevitch, who missed last year's loss with an ankle sprain, "I was really angry last year (sitting out), because we could have had an undefeated season, 28-0. So that was probably my biggest thing, I wanted to get them back for the guys that left -- for the Carsons (Desrosiers), all them -- and then I pretty much wanted revenge more than anything."
And for that, the 6-foot-7 Zenevitch (21 points, 10 rebounds, three assists) gave the Hawks (9-4) all they could handle. Without a big body to matchup with the Assumption-bound post player, they applied a variety of full-court presses, tweaking 2-1-2 and 2-2-1 looks and trapping the ballcarrier at the sidelines.
But Central happened to want to run, too. They led 18-6 after the first quarter thanks to a similar full-court pressure applied after completed baskets, which gave the Hawks enough trouble that they struggled getting the ball over the half-court line.
Still, when Zenevitch picked up his second foul with 1:38 left in the first quarter, it was cause for concern. But while some coaches strictly sit a player for the rest of the half upon his second foul, Central head coach Rick Nault had no second thought about throwing Zenevitch right back out there for the start of the second quarter.
The move paid off, as the big man muscled his way to 14 first-half points on 5 of 7 shooting from the field and a perfect 4 for 4 at the free throw line on three trips. Central led at the half, 36-20.
"If he picks up a third in the second quarter, he's coming out," Nault said. "My whole thing is, we need to have him on the floor when the game's on the line. And I'm not going to jeopardize early minutes to not have him in the game late. He's so valuable to us not only because he scores in the paint, but he rebounds and he's such a valuable leader. So if he's not in the game, he's still valuable to us as a leader on the bench."
With their lineup, the Raiders have seen more zone defenses than usual from opponents, including such looks from traditional man-to-man teams like Andover and Lawrence. So when the Hawks came out in the second half with varied 2-3 and 1-3-1 zone looks, players found success getting to spots in the perimeter and making swift passes to the open man. Another big run gave the Raiders a 53-29 lead headed into the final stanza.
In all, Hendricken committed 16 more turnovers than field goals (30, to just 14 field goals).
"I think we have a little bit of both," Nault said. "I think we're athletic on the perimeter and then we have the big guy in the middle who can score in the paint. So I think if teams try to make it a halfcourt game, I think we can be very successful. If teams want to go up and down with our guards and athleticism, I think we can do that as well."
Hendricken was led in scoring by Lee Messier, who tallied 13 points and was 2 of 4 from three-point range.
NELSON'S POISE NO SURPRISE
At first glance, it might surprise the unfamiliar to see scrawny 5-foot-8 freshman Tyler Nelson as one of the first off the bench and nail down three's with a textbook shot delivery, then get in his teammates' faces and coolly direct traffic in the halfcourt.
Within the program, everyone sees the Haverhill native's maturity beyond years as a long time coming. Of course, it doesn't hurt when your father is Jeff Nelson, an advance scout for the Utah Jazz who runs many camps and clinics in the Merrimack Valley region.
"Of course not," Puello said when asked if he's surprised. "We have high expectations of Tyler, even though he's only a freshman. You know, we trust him like he trusts us. When he gets on the floor, there's just something special about him, when he's running the offense, you know."
Said Zenevitch, "I've grown up playing with Tyler since probably fifth grade. His dad's helped me out coaching, I've gone to his camps, and I've pretty much known Tyler since I was 10 or 11. So I knew right when he came in that he was going to have a spot on the team pretty much. I have confidence in him hitting pretty much any shot that he takes."