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BABC Winter Classic: No. 7 St. John's Prep 63, No. 9 Brighton 55

BOSTON -- In the waning minutes of the third quarter, St. John’s Prep forced yet another turnover as sophomore forward Tommy O’Neil intercepted a Brighton pass in the lane.

After giving it up to a guard, the 6-foot-7 O’Neil put his head down and went into a full sprint. He followed the fast break as if he knew he would have to crash the glass for an offensive rebound, and sure enough, put back a miss to give the Eagles a 42-33 lead after concluding a 14-2 run.

Prep may have struggled against Brighton’s pressure at first, but the Eagles flipped the script on the Bengals during the second half at the Reggie Lewis Center. They scored 12 points off eight Brighton turnovers, held the Bengals to just five points, and seized control of the game in the third quarter.

That effort earned the Eagles a 10-point advantage heading into the final frame, which would provide enough of a cushion for them to hold on to a 63-55 victory in the third game of the Boston Athletic Basketball Club (BABC) Winter Classic Tournament.

“I think it was more of an attitude adjustment than anything,” Prep head coach John Dullea said about the Eagles' second half turnaround. “We didn’t play a good first half at all. I let the kids know that during halftime and they were able to respond.”

In fact, the Eagles got off to a horrific start in this game. They turned the ball over seven times in the opening quarter, which led directly to eight of Brighton’s 20 points in that frame.

“We weren’t playing tough, we weren’t physical, and we let them dictate the tempo,” Dullea added about the first half. “You could see the game change right from the get go in the third quarter because we came out with more intensity.”

While the Eagles received outstanding efforts from Tommy O’Neill (eight points, 10 rebounds), his older brother Harry O’Neill (15 points, four rebounds), and another 6-foot-6 forward in Justin Connolly (11 points, seven rebounds), the play of 5-foot-10 point guard Alec Buresh arguably made the biggest difference in the comeback effort.

Buresh was responsible for breaking the Bengals pressure, feeding those big men the ball down low, and containing Brighton point guard Jordan Galloway.

As an added bonus, he hit the two biggest three-pointers of the game to maintain the Eagles’ 10-point lead.

“[Buresh] was terrific,” Dullea effused. “We left him on an island in the second half. We knew [Brighton] would run and jump at him with the press and we asked him to make a play. He got the ball to the open man and we were able to go to the basket. He played 30 minutes again tonight against a team that pressures the ball up and down the court and I can’t say enough about his performance.”

Last Gasp: The Bengals didn’t go quietly in the fourth quarter.

Tyrone Perry finished in traffic and Jordan Galloway drew an awed reaction from the crowd on a crossover move and layup. The junior guard would get the Bengals within three (56-53) when he was fouled on a three-point attempt and hit all three free throws, but they would get no closer.

On the Eagles ensuing possession, Buresh drove into the lane and was blocked by Brighton senior Izaiah Winston-Brooks, but Prep’s Harry O’Neil was right there to clean up the miss and score to make it 58-53 with 46 seconds remaining.

“St. John’s Prep came out on fire in the second half, and we didn’t match their energy,” admitted Brighton head coach Hugh Coleman. “By the time we matched their effort, we were down 10 and it was too late. It’s hard to beat a good team when you spot them that kind of lead.”

While the Bengals didn’t bring the same intensity in the second half, credit the Eagles for ratcheting up their defensive efforts in the half court.

Brighton’s guards could not find a lane to drive to the basket and if they managed to find their way to the rim, a 6-foot-6 forward would greet them to block or contest their shot.

“The ball kind of stuck for [Brighton],” Dullea observed. “They tried to beat us off the dribble but we helped out and rebounded. Most importantly, we were able to turn it into a half court game and we’re a pretty good team when we get teams to play at our pace.”

He added, “We only had a handful of turnovers in the second half, and when you do that, you get good quality shots, which in turn helps you set up the defense by keeping the opposition out of transition.”

Overall, the Bengals committed 13 turnovers during the second half and managed just two fast break points.

That isn’t their preferred recipe for success, and as Coleman said, “It was very uncharacteristic of what we’re trying to do. We have talented players who are trying to figure out how to play together. That’s been our Achilles heel. We don’t play as a team all the time, and we need to do that if we want to be successful.”

Righting The Ship: This game concludes a brutal stretch for Prep (6-3) during which the Eagles faced six consecutive opponents that were at one time ranked in ESPN Boston’s Top 25 statewide polls.

After dropping decisions at Newton North (59-52) and Catholic Memorial (79-62), while defeating Central Catholic 76-51 at home, this team came into Monday’s matchup with No. 9 Brighton (5-4) ready to face elite competition.

“Those games helped us prepare for this game and this win will help us prepare for other games down the line, such as in the state tournament,” Dullea concluded. “We create a tough non-conference schedule for a reason and I feel as though it’s helped us prepare for anything.”

You can teach a group of players different strategies or schemes, but winning state tournament games against quality opponents often comes down to effort.

Now the Eagles have a taste of what it takes to match the intensity and effort of several state title contenders and they’re beginning to show that they can prove as determined as any team.

St. John’s Prep 63, Brighton 55

SJP 12 13 21 17 --- 63

BR 20 11 5 19 --- 55

Top Performers:

St. John’s Prep – Harry O’Neill (15 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists)

St. John’s Prep – Alec Buresh (12 points, 2 assists)

St. John’s Prep – Tommy O’Neill (8 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists)

Brighton – Jordan Galloway (16 points, 1 steal)

Brighton – Jerrod Clark (7 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks)

Brighton – Tyrone Perry (13 points, 2 rebounds)