DANVERS, Mass. -- Freddy Shove clutched the basketball he had just wrestled away seconds ago and punched the air as he went to the line with 0.7 seconds left, his St. John's Prep squad ahead by two over No. 1 Central Catholic, and the navy-clad student section to the left of him screaming in euphoria.
For the first time in his career, and his head coach Sean Connolly's tenure at the Prep, the Eagles came away with a win over the Merrimack Valley powerhouse, gutting out a 72-70 win after the Raiders crawled back from a seven-point deficit with under three minutes left to take a brief lead with 50 ticks left. With the win, the Eagles (19-1) now await the result of tomorrow night's clash between Madison Park and No. 3 Cambridge (17-1), to find out whether they'll get the No. 1 overall seed in Division 1 North when the MIAA Tournament seedings are unveiled Friday morning.
Make no mistake, had 6-foot-5 sophomore Isaiah Robinson not deflected Jaycob Morales' inbounds pass with 3.8 seconds to go, unleashing a scrum that led to Shove scooping up the ball and drawing a foul, this could be an entirely different narrative.
"We were trying not to let an easy shot get off," said Robinson (eight rebounds). "I took to the pass when it came in, and it's history from there."
But don't get it twisted, either -- simply put, in the final 30 seconds of the game, Pat Connaughton happened.
The Prep's Notre Dame-bound, ESPNU 100 superstar quietly put together his umpteenth double-double of the season (23 points, 16 rebounds), but he'll most be remembered from this game for two plays he made in the final three possessions to carry the Eagles to victory.
First, with 23 seconds to go, Connaughton went to the hole on a play that was initially designed for him to hit running mate Steve Haladyna coming off a back screen. Instead, Connaughton ended up leaping to snatch a lob pass away from Luis Puello, dribbled to the middle of the paint, gathered and floated it at the rim.
"It was more like a hop step to get in between Puello and [center] Jimmy [Zenevitch], and then I kinda of rose up and just tried to concentrate on hitting the glass, and that was it," Connaughton said.
Ten seconds later, at the other end of the floor, Connaughton swatted the 6-foot-8 Zenevitch (32 points, nine rebounds) as he went to the hole, sending the home crowd into an uproar. Puello (12 points) fumbled his dribble on the ensuing inbounds pass, and he tugged the the ball with Prep's Mike Carbone (21 points) for a jump ball that gave Central possession again, and Morales (10 points) with the inbound with 3.8 seconds left. Both Connolly and Central head coach Rick Nault used a timeout before Robinson came up with the deflection to seal the game.
"It don't want to say it was like a last wind, but it was more like 'Alright, last two minutes, this is where the game's decided'," said Connaughton, who took the duties of matching up with Zenevitch all night. "And it just kinda came down to that [block]."
Said Connolly, "Pat made some big plays at the end, I mean he really stepped up. He took the game over for us at the end. You expect that out of someone like him."
The teams were tied at 55 apiece headed into the final frame, but the Eagles jumped out to a seven-point lead with a series of free throws, Connaughton hitting the first of two free throws to give them their second-largest lead of the game at 69-62 with 2:43 left.
But things quickly went south for Prep, as the Raiders (19-2) deployed a full-court man-to-man press to cause some turnovers and create some baskets around the rim with swift entry passes. The turning point, though, came when Zenevitch made a swat on Haladyna that very nearly looked like a goaltending call; Connolly, infuriated, turned to the refs to protest but was immediately hit with a technical foul.
Freshman Tyler Nelson (10 points) hit the two free throws, and the Raiders took a 70-69 lead with 1:17 left on a nice feed from Puello to Zenevitch.
"I was kinda going like this," Connolly said, feigning a brushing motion. "And I touched him, and he said because I touched him he called the T. So...I don't know, but it looked like a goal tend to me."
Connaughton tied it up at 70 by hitting the first of two free throws with 56 seconds left, and then came through with the heroics a handful of seconds later.
Last week, following the Raiders' buzzer-beating win over archrival Andover, Luis Puello was asked by an ESPNBoston reporter whether he expected to be assigned to Connaughton tonight, to which he responded, "Of course. I don't care if he's 6-7, you know what I mean, I'll play him all night. We'll see what happens."
On the soccer pitch, they might call Puello's defense of Connaughton "marking". The junior, considered one of the state's best on-ball defenders, followed Connaughton all over the floor wherever he wandered when the Raiders went to man-to-man sets. And while Connaughton ended up with a double-double, it wasn't without its share of troubles.
"He's got very quick feet, probably one of the best on-ball defenders I've ever seen in high school," Connolly said. "He makes it tough. I mean, you've got to work to score on Puello. He does a good job denying you, he's physical, moves his feet better than anyone I've ever seen. So I mean, he makes you work."
Said Connaughton, "Puello plays tough 'D'. He's always moving, and it's really kinda hard to get used to. I mean, he did a great job the entire game. I got the best of him at the last one, but really he played the best of anyone who's defended me all year."
With the Eagles holding a 36-31 lead at the half, but some of their key players like Haladyna in foul trouble, they turned to junior Michael Carbone for some big buckets in the third quarter. And boy did he deliver, scoring 11 points (two 3-pointers), knocking down all his free throws and going 3 of 4 from the field.
"Mike had a very good game. He's a tough kid," Connolly said. "He stepped up and made some big shots for us. I mean, he's been playing well. He did a very good job defending Morales, made him work the whole time, so he did a great job for us."