Alicea leads Lawrence into D1 North final

READING, Mass. -- Wednesday night at Reading Memorial High School's Hawkes Field House was the site of a few firsts for Lawrence High's boys basketball team.

In the immediate moments following the Lancers' 75-67 win over Lynn English (21-3) in a Division 1 North semifinal, star senior point guard Jaylen Alicea was carried off the floor for the first time by his rowdy, navy-clad classmates.

"Greatest feeling in the world," Alicea smiled. "I do it for them, and I do it for my teammates. I've never been to the Garden, never made it out of the first round. This is my first year doing this, and it feels great."

Minutes later, when everyone had a few moments to gather their thoughts and wrap their head around just how a No. 15 seed just punched its way to the D1 North finals at the TD Garden, where they'll face heavily-favored St. John's Prep, the Lancers (16-8) took a moment to reflect on the past. Friday will mark the Lancers' first appearance in the Garden since the 2005 D1 Eastern Mass final, when the Lancers lost to Newton North and its major college-ready backcourt of Anthony Gurley and Corey Lowe.

It was also the last game played by one of the Lancers' best guards in recent years, Hector Paniagua, who was shot and paralyzed weeks later. And for that, head coach Paul Neal told reporters he was about to reach out to Paniagua -- whom he called "one of the best players that I have ever coached at Lawrence High School" -- and invite him to be on the bench for Friday's final against St. John's Prep (he accepted).

Neal then made a comparison to reporters between the 5-foot-8 Paniagua and the Lancers' electric senior point guard, the 5-foot-8 Alicea -- "he was very similar to Jaylen" -- but reiterated that these wins have been "a players' decision. They decided they wanted to do the things they're good at, and keep it simple."

Most importantly of that note, this has been a wild coming-out party for the waterbug Alicea. He scored 16 points in the final frame (including a perfect 14 for 14 from the free throw line) to give him 30 points on the night, his third straight 30-point game of a playoff run that is about to go five games deep. In the last game, an 81-80 quarterfinal win over Westford, he had 38 points; the game before that and arguably the upset of the playoffs, an 82-78 first-round upset of Cambridge, he went off for 35.

This wasn't the Alicea fans came to know during the regular season, when the Lancers sputtered to a 12-8 campaign after being hyped as one of the Merrimack Valley Conference's preseason favorites. So what changed?

"He's leading, and I think in the regular season Jaylen was more interested in getting the crowd into it, getting ooh's and aah's," Neal said. "He was more interested in crossing over and hearing the crowd go 'Ooh', but he wouldn't go anywhere. He would take a pretty jump shot and pull his hand back, or you know, he would do something fancy.

"And we've been trying to get him to...just, 'Jaylen, there's nobody that can cover you on the court if you go hard. Forget the crossover, just blow by him.' You know, go to the rim and get to the basket. And he's done that. You look at the free throws, and he hardly took any during the first, maybe, 17 games."

Last night, meanwhile, he was a perfect 16 of 16 from the line, taking nasty spills after physical collisions around the rim with the Bulldogs' big men, senior Corey McMillen and junior Keandre Stanton (16 points, 11 rebounds, 10 blocks). And when he wasn't doing that, he was setting up big man Jesse Hiraldo (17 points, 12 rebounds) down low or running mates Darwin Pereyra (12 points) and Yadoris Arias (10) with swift kick-outs to the perimeter. Alicea finished with five assists on the night.

In one particular momentum swing late in the third quarter, Alicea fed Arias with back-to-back three-pointers on the wing off kick-outs from the paint for 46-44 lead. Alicea then stole the ensuing inbounds pass and went hard to the hole, twisting his midsection in mid-air as he flicked the ball in for a successful lay-in and three-point play. He sunk the free throw for a 49-44 advantage, and English never led the rest of the way.

"I've played with Yadoris since I was in eighth grade, and he's always made big shots," Alicea said. "In eighth grade, we used to call him 'Mr. Clutch'. He's always made big shots for our teams, and he did it today. I love him for that."

It was that kind of night for the Lancers. So while Stanton's explosive vertical leap altered the game plans of the floater-tending guards, by the end of the night the Bulldogs were gassed. Rather than force a half-court tempo against the Bulldogs' exceptionally athletic lineup, the Lancers went right at them from the get-go with their own preference.

"He [Stanton] is a great athlete, but you can't take it away from my players," Neal said. "I mean, [they're] smaller, but they found ways to score, found ways to rebound when we needed them, and they found a way to win."

Senior Travonne Berry-Rogers led the way for English, with 25 points in the loss.

Brendan Hall is a high school sports editor at ESPNBoston.com.

Follow him on Twitter: @BHallESPN.