LAWRENCE, Mass. -- Nobody seemed to know too much about this gangly, shaggy-haired kid named Freddy Shove when the junior arrived on the St. John's Prep campus this past fall, fresh from Lynnfield High, to try out for the school's basketball team.
"I knew him from playing summer league, but other than that I had no idea," admitted Notre Dame-bound senior captain Pat Connaughton.
All the 6-foot-2 Shove offers on a given night is hustle -- granted, in bunches. And last night, in the most crucial moments of this massive Division 1 North semifinal tilt before a capacity crowd at Lawrence High, all those little things -- all those kamikaze crashes to the boards after every shot release -- added up to give the Eagles just enough to hold off and knock off defending D1 state champ Central Catholic, 63-60, to return to the TD Garden for a second straight appearance in the D1 North final.
Prep (22-1) now awaits the winner of tonight's Lawrence-Lynn English semifinal at Reading High, while Central ended its season 21-3.
"He's been like this for us all year," Prep head coach Sean Connolly said of Shove. "He works non-stop, he works as hard as anyone you'd expect. He goes full-out all the time."
Shove put in a season-best 15 points to go along with nine rebounds, helped catapult the Eagles along with Steve Haladyna (23 points) in a 12-0 second quarter run, and toiled in rotations against Central's big man, 6-foot-7 Assumption commit Jimmy Zenevitch (33 points, 13 rebounds). But he'll most be remembered for his efforts in the final 2:30 of game, in which he sandwiched a foul-drawing put-back in between two crucial offensive boards.
"Just crash the boards, make Zenevitch work," Shove said of his mentality tonight. "Zenevitch doesn't box out as well, but he grabs the rebounds because he's 6-foot-7. So, you have to look for the spots where he's not, and just hope the ball bounces that way, and just get behind the players and go for the ball."
Said Connaughton, "He's brought toughness. We had George Sessoms bring a lot of the toughness last year, and Freddy's brought it this year. He goes hard every single practice, every game, every single second of every single time he's on the floor. So that's huge to get us over the hump."
The Eagles turned in arguably their best defensive rotation of the night, with Shove on the floor, as the Raiders had 16 seconds out of a timeout to create a shot from behind the arc. With Luis Puello stalled off a high screen, and Jaycob Morales under heavy pressure out of a double, they ended up settling for their third option -- Zenevitch -- hucking up a contested 30-foot three-pointer that clanked as the buzzer sounded.
Meanwhile, Connaughton finished with 17 rebounds but a miserable 12 points on 5 of 23 from the field, including an unheard-of 0 for 9 in the fourth (a stanza for which he usually reserves his best performances) -- "I had a bad game, that's the bottom line," he said.
In his place, Haladyna -- who watched game film of his sub-par performance against the Raiders two weeks ago to get pumped up for tonight -- stepped up in a multitude of dimensions. First, he shook a defender in transition with a euro-step to spark a 12-0 run at the start of the second quarter. Then late in the third, he gave the Eagles their biggest lead of the night at 50-35, when he took a Mike Carbone inbounds pass, drew a foul on the way up to a successful floater, and hit the ensuing free throw.
"[Connolly] was on me real bad about that [last game]," Haladyna said. "So that definitely motivated me."
The and-one seemed to re-energize the Raiders, as they outscored Prep 25-13 the rest of the way. Freshman Tyler Nelson took a Zenevitch outlet and nailed a three in transition to cut the lead to eight, then cut it to as close as 57-56 with two made free throws. But in the waning minutes, and with a four-point lead, the Eagles used stall tactics and were able to reset the shot clock with crucial long rebounds by Shove and Isaiah Robinson.
"I said this at the end of last season -- they were going to be the No. 1 team headed into this year," Central head coach Rick Nault said of the Eagles, who entered both the preseason and postseason as the top overall squad in ESPNBoston's state-wide MIAA poll. "I said it again two weeks ago, and I'm saying it again now. They're the best team in the state.
"They're so well-coached. And it's not just all about Pat. I mean, Haladyna's a sensational player, he took it to us tonight. They had other kids step in, Shove had a tremendous night, he attacked Jimmy at will. They just have a lot of the right pieces, and they do all the little things so well."
Brendan Hall is a high school sports editor for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.