LOWELL, Mass. -- If the Merrimack Valley Conference basketball season is anything like it was during football season, it will be a fight to the finish.
That was exemplified Friday night, when No. 2 Lowell beat No. 11 Andover 50-40 in a defensive slugfest.
Lowell came out sluggish in the first quarter, failing to score a basket for the first 5:30 of the game. Part of that was due to the early play, or lack thereof, of its center Drew Healy (12 points, seven rebounds). He was having difficulty holding on to the basketball and finishing.
“I didn’t come out ready, my head wasn’t in the game,” he said. “I saw the energy and I saw the crowd, and I knew how the game was going to be and I had to react and come out and play like I usually do.”
Lowell (7-0) coach Scott Boyle removed Healy from the game in the middle of the quarter, hoping to light a spark under him. He was put back into the game, and the team’s play changed. Where he was getting boxed out and outmuscled by Andover’s Sam Dowden (10 points, four rebounds) early on, it was Healy who started taking advantage of his positioning and asserting himself underneath.
In the second quarter, Lowell switched away from man-to-man concepts and went to a more traditional zone defense. It was great timing on their part as Andover’s shooters went cold. Lowell took care of the long rebounds and went out in transition and took a lead it would never relinquish.
Lowell took a 20-15 lead into halftime, but Andover (5-2) did not go quietly. Recognizing its need for points, coach Dave Fazio put in Jack Konevich, a left-handed long-range shooter to make some noise behind the three-point line. He hit two quality shots, and around the same time, Andover’s Chris Dunn started to get hot from three. Suddenly, Andover was only down 35-32 heading into the fourth.
The Lowell defense was just too much, however. With costly turnovers turned into transition baskets, including a last-minute dagger three-pointer by Kevin Brito (eight points), Lowell was able to secure the victory.
“It was kind of par for the course, it’s never going to be easy either way in our league,” said Boyle. “We finished the game tonight in the fourth quarter which is important to me, when it was still a back-and-forth game. I just thought they’re a real good team, they’re sound, and I thought it was a real good test for us. We played well on our home court, and you have to win on your home court.”
Flipping the switch: In the second quarter, Lowell switched to a zone defense and Andover could not take advantage. It was as though Lowell was daring the Golden Warriors to shoot from the outside, and it sure did. Andover went 1-for-12 from the field in the quarter.
Healy, mentally and physically in the game at this point after struggling early, consistently outmuscled and out-rebounded his counterpart Dowden, which prevented the possibility of any Andover second chance points. The Red Raiders went on a 9-0 run at the end of the half and go into the break up 20-15.
“They’re a well-coached team and they run great offensive sets,” said Boyle. “We wanted to try and get them out of rhythm. Tonight, it kind of worked for us, and that’s why you take a shot. They’re a great zone team as well, they can shoot the ball, and I thought because we have some length, we had the ability to play a little zone.”
Healy gave Dowden fits for most of the night. Dowden, at 6-foot-4 and 195 pounds, is used to being able to use his body effectively underneath the basket to create space and easy baskets. However, against the 6-foot-7 Healy and the tightly-packed Lowell zone, he struggled to find room to maneuver inside, and when he did, often had his shot contested or found himself in a tie-up situation with a swarming Lowell defender.
“Usually we’re just straight man D,” said Healy. “Coach wanted to mix it up tonight because of the matchup differences, and we’ve been working on it in practice the last couple weeks. They missed shots so we just had to box out and play tough.”
Andover’s Dunn (14 points) still hit four 3-pointers in the game, but it was never enough to close the gap on the scoreboard.
Round Two: Sunday, Lowell will have a rematch with New Bedford, a mere 16 days after the Red Raiders 54-point drubbing on its home court. Healy is not expecting it to be nearly as easy this time around.
“We came out and our shooters were on, they were hitting, Kevin (Brito) hit five three’s,” he said. “We just kept pushing it and pushing it, and then we won. This time we expect a bigger challenge, but we’re going to go into the game just like we did every other game. We’re going to go in there and fight, and the best man comes out winning.”