Connolly with the block, Danforth w/ the save, H O'Neill in the right place. Eagles up 60-58 with ball 8 secs left pic.twitter.com/4hOIWjuUoq— Nate Weitzer (@nweitzer7) February 23, 2016
DANVERS, Mass. -- In preparation for the upcoming MIAA state tournament, St. John’s Prep and Concord-Carlisle experienced a bit of March Madness in late February.
Two top-10 teams that have played a grueling schedule throughout the regular season faced off in one final tune-up before the postseason, and when the dust settled, the Eagles had emerged with a hard-fought 60-58 victory.
“The last few games that we’ve played have all been tournament-like atmospheres and this was no different,” said St. John’s Prep head coach John Dullea. “[Concord-Carlisle] is a battle-tested team and they just didn’t give up. I’m glad we played them and I think they’re glad they played us because that’s going to help us both in the [state] tournament going forward.”
The Patriots (17-2) came into this contest on the strength of a 17-game winning streak. They jumped out to an early 16-8 lead after one quarter, as the Eagles (14-6) struggled to rebound on the defensive end, while star seniors Spencer Danforth and Alec Buresh couldn’t connect on their jump shots.
Dullea pointed out that the pregame ceremony on Senior Night might have created some early jitters for the home team.
“We came out a little bit too jacked up. It’s Senior Night and some of these guys really wanted to go out with a bang,” Dullea asserted. “We don’t usually shoot air balls like that, but [Buresh and Danforth] settled down and made some shots.”
In fact, Buresh connected on a four-point play, and Danforth added a three-pointer to spark an 8-0 run towards the end of the second quarter. With a steal and lay up right before the halftime buzzer, Danforth gave Prep its first lead of the night at 29-27.
Nothing could separate these teams down the stretch, as they were tied at 44 heading into the fourth quarter.
Seniors Austin Hoey and Eric Sellew came out with huge baskets for the visitors, but in the end it was Buresh who hit the biggest shot in the form of a tough floater to put the Eagles up 60-58 with eight seconds remaining.
Buresh gets tough floater to fall. Prep 60, C-C 58 with 29 seconds remaining pic.twitter.com/gXDJu1fiP0— Nate Weitzer (@nweitzer7) February 23, 2016
After a Patriots timeout, Sellew (18 points, 9 rebounds) drove hard to the basket but was denied by Prep junior Justin Connolly. Danforth flew in from the weak side to save the ball before it went out of bounds, and -- thanks to poise, or happenstance -- it found the arms of Eagles senior Harry O’Neill as he lay on the court after the scrum.
O’Neill quickly called timeout and the Patriots would not get another good look to tie or win the game in the final seconds.
“I give the guys credit because it didn’t look so good during the fourth quarter and they made some plays at the end that proved to be the difference,” said Dullea. “It wasn’t a pretty game, but it was an exciting game, and we’ll take the “W”
Another Battle: While Concord-Carlisle finishes the season at 17-2, the Patriots should still earn the top seed in the Division 2 Central bracket.
Fighting a renowned Division 1 program down to the last possession might inspire confidence for this group, while tasting a bitter defeat for the first time since the Patriots lost 54-53 to Cambridge in their home opener on December 15 could heighten motivation before the state tournament.
“We came into this game with a lot of confidence. At times we paused, and [St. John’s Prep] took advantage of that,” said Concord-Carlisle head coach David Cohen.
Cohen continued by expression some optimism when he said, “Two years ago we lost our final [regular season] game and wound up in the state finals. You can always learn from a loss and hopefully that’s what we do. It was a great experience to come in here and face [St. John’s Prep] and now our senior-laden team is even more battle tested. Hopefully that pays off in the tournament.”
Clicking: For the Eagles, this victory caps a six-game winning streak since they lost a heartbreaker, 76-75, to No. 1 Catholic Memorial on February 2.
During that span they avenged a mid-season loss to New Mission with a 53-43 road win, demolished Charlestown 63-34, and added an impressive victory at Lynn English (66-44) to prove that they’re still a team to fear in the Division 1 tournament.
With another win over a highly ranked opponent, the Eagles have likely earned the fourth seed in the D1 North bracket and a first-round home game.
“We’ll go as far as our senior captains can take us,” said Dullea. “Spencer [Danforth] and Alec [Buresh] really stepped up tonight and made plays down the stretch. Without those guys we’re not in the game.”
Danforth knocked down two huge threes in the fourth quarter and of course he also made the hustle play to essentially seal the win for the Eagles.
While huge forwards such as Justin Connolly, Harry and Tommy O’Neill can continue to create matchup problems for the opposition, Buresh is arguably the most important player for the Eagles because he’ll have to penetrate to put his teammates in position to score.
Both seniors came up huge in their final regular season home game, but they certainly don’t want this late-season thriller to serve as the final shining moment of their careers.
St. John’s Prep 60, Concord-Carlisle 58
SJP 8 21 15 16 --- 60
CC 16 9 17 14 --- 58
St. John’s Prep – Harry O’Neill (10 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocks)
St. John’s Prep – Spencer Danforth (22 points, 3 steals)
St. John’s Prep – Alec Buresh (8 points, 4 assists)
Concord-Carlisle – Eric Sellew (18 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks)
Concord-Carlisle – Austin Hoey (9 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals)