LAWRENCE, Mass. -- With just three weeks remaining in the season, the Lawrence High School Lancers were a fringe playoff team. They weighed in at 7-5, and looked to be destined for a low tournament seed if they could stay afloat.
Then coach Ray Nunez made a lineup change, inserting 6-foot-1 junior Kevin Vanderhorst into the starting lineup on Feb. 4th, a 62-44 win over Worcester South in Boston. Vanderhorst rode the bench to begin the winter, not seeing even a minute in the season opening win at North Andover. Despite a lack of playing time, the Lancer coaching staff pushed Vanderhorst every day; his potential, they said, was tremendous.
Little did Nunez know that the move might have saved his team’s season. The Lancers haven't lost a game since, riding an eight-game win streak into the tournament.
Vanderhorst’s hard work reached its pinnacle with a herculean 23-point, 22-rebound effort in the team’s 71-47 victory vs Peabody (10-11) Tuesday night in the first round of the MIAA Division 1 North tournament.
“He’s a heck of a player,” gushed Peabody coach Thad Broughton. “He did a fantastic job underneath, and he really hurt us on the rebounds. That was the key, because they got a lot of put backs, a lot of second baskets off their misses. They did a nice job, they crashed the glass hard. It wasn’t from a lack of effort from our guys, it was really more of them crashing the boards. They’re a heck of a team.”
For Nunez, the performance wasn’t the least bit surprising, despite the gaudy numbers.
“He’s done it in practice -- our coaching staff is telling him in practice [what he’s capable of] and we ask him to rebound,” Nunez explained. “We ask him to be aggressive in the high post because that’s going to open it up down low for the big guy, [6-foot-9 center] Franziel [Reyes].
"He’s an athletic kid, and also a bright young man, and I think he shows that when he’s on the court. It’s no surprise to our coaching staff since he’s been doing it in practice. He’s a hard worker and it shows.”
According to Vanderhorst, all he ever needed was a bit of confidence -- something to prove to himself what the coaches had been telling him all along. When his extra time paid off with his first start against South High, he found what he’d been looking for.
“The game against South High Community School in Boston, it was my first start, and I scored at least 13 points. That was the breaking point of the season,” Vanderhorst said. “After that, I started playing harder and started each game and I’m giving it my all.”
And while he takes pride in just how far he’s come, his best attribute is his humility.
“I just try to go after each rebound. It wasn’t all my own job, my teammates helped me -- like Franziel Reyes, he opened up the court for me to get more rebounds. That’s it -- it’s teamwork,” Vanderhorst said. “It’s incredible – I started the season on the bench with not one minute, and now I’m starting in the playoffs. I’m working hard every day.”
Grand Theft Auto: It took nearly four minutes for anyone to score after Peabody won the opening tip. Three and a half minutes into the game, the score was still 0-0. Then came Lawrence senior Julio Vicente.
The 5-foot-8 point guard stirred up trouble for Peabody, jumping into passing lines and creating transition opportunities which the Lancers capitalized on: two quick three-pointers for senior Dantae Neal (who finished the night with 16 points and nine rebounds), and another steal by Vicente that led to an uncontested layup. Within thirty seconds, Lawrence led 8-0.
The point guard battle looked to be the early focus, as Vicente and Peabody’s Matt Correale went toe-to-toe over the first eight minutes. By halftime, Correale’s four points and three steals were narrowly outdone by Vicente’s four points, four steals, and three assists.
The two teams combined for 12 first half steals -- eight for Lawrence -- and 17 in the game.
“It was a good matchup, he’s a very good point guard,” Correale said. “He’s quick, tough, he plays pretty good defense. It was both ways, we both had to play hard.”
He finished the game with nine points and five steals.
Peabody battled back over the first eight minutes to finish the quarter trailing by just four points, 15-11, but they ultimately never held a lead in the game.
No Peabody player scored more than five points in the opening half, and the Tanners resigned to the locker room down 12 points. Neal led Lawrence with a game-high 10 points through 16 minutes.
Piling on: Arguably the most impressive part of Vanderhorst’s monster performance Tuesday is how it happened. The junior had a modest first half, scoring six points and pulling down six rebounds en route to a 35-23 halftime lead.
For the first 3:20 of the second half, Lawrence and Peabody combined for eight points, four apiece. The Tanners called a timeout, hoping to change things up and climb back in.
Then the clock struck 12.
In the next 3:52, Lawrence went on an 11-0 run before another Peabody timeout, eventually closing the quarter by scoring the final 13 points. Vanderhorst scored 12 points of his own, and grabbed seven rebounds in the process, giving him 18 points and 13 rebounds after three quarters.
The Lancers outscored the Tanners 17-4 in the quarter on the way to blowing open a 52-27 lead.
Vanderhorst then almost singlehandedly shut down Peabody’s chances of a comeback, changing shots in the paint and pulling down nearly every rebound imaginable – nine in the quarter, to be exact.
“I think we’ve seen it all along. And his teammates have seen it as well. He just had a great game all around,” Nunez said. “He’s a big part of it. He’s a big part of what we do, because we are trying to get the ball in the paint, whether it’s with the pass or the dribble penetration, and he’s able to do that.”
With a 22 point lead and three minutes remaining, the Lancers were still pressuring Peabody full-court.
Forgotten were the opening minutes where onlookers openly wondered if anyone would score in the game at all.
A few Peabody players broke through the stifling defense to produce decent performances, sophomore guard Matt D’Amato chief among them. His presence in the second quarter sparked a Peabody run, including five points of his own. He added eight more in the second half and finished with 13 for the game.
In spite of the scoring, or lack thereof, Nunez was never worried.
“As long as no teams are scoring and we’re defending, if it comes down to the fourth quarter and it’s 0-0, we’re in the game,” he said. “That’s our main priority first: try to defend, keep teams off the line, and then it gives us an opportunity to win. It doesn’t matter if you win by one, by 10, 15, whatever it may be. The main job for our guys is lets defend, block out, rebound, run, and if there’s nothing there slow down. It’s no secret.
“They’ve done it for 20 games. We’ve played in the MVC with other teams like Andover and Central Catholic. That’s just our style -- it’s nothing new to the Lawrence program, and these guys I feel have bought into that.”