LAWRENCE, Mass. -- Last season's two meetings between Central Catholic and St. John's Prep -- once late in the regular season, and again in the Division 1 North semifinals a few weeks later -- can be summed up in short as epic. The two games, both wins for Prep, were decided by just five points total, and featured last-minute heroics from ESPN Boston Mr. Basketball and Notre Dame freshman Pat Connaughton.
So what to say of this, then, an 80-56 win over the Eagles that was polished from start to finish? The Raiders (11-0) never trailed in this one, and strung together runs of 12-3 and 9-0 in the second and third quarters, respectively, to maintain control throughout.
"It feels great," said senior Luis Puello, a major player in both of last year's battles, who came off the bench tonight in recovering from an ankle injury. "There's not a better feeling than that, you know. They come to our house, and we beat them by however much we beat them. But they're a good team, you know, we're going to face them again [next month, in Central's host tournament], and we've just got to bring it again."
Prep (9-2) cut Central's lead to 25-20 midway through the second quarter on a three-pointer from the corner by Freddy Shove, but the Raiders answered with a Nick Cambio (16 points, eight rebounds) three from the opposite corner, off a Joel Berroa kickout pass, that made it 30-23. After Central head coach Rick Nault was called for a technical foul, Lucas Hammel finished off the 12-3 run with a steal in the open court and breakaway layup.
Central led 37-24 at the half, and the Eagles never came within eight the rest of the way.
"That was probably our best 32 minutes of basketball all season," Nault said. "We lost to these guys twice last year, they ended our season. And since March now, we've talked about that feeling we had in the locker room last March, and it stuck with these guys. They were pretty fired up all week, and it showed tonight in terms of their energy and effort."
The junior Berroa poured in a double-double (18 points, 11 rebounds) in the winning cause, while Hammel and Tyler Nelson added 11 points each. Prep was led in scoring by Mike Carbone (17 points) and Steve Haladyna (10).
Cambio climbing: After earning some hype with a strong summer campaign, it has been a breakout season for the sophomore Cambio to say the least. The 6-foot-5 forward had some crucial minutes in the Raiders' 69-67 overtime thriller over Lawrence last weekend, totaling 16 points and 12 rebounds.
This afternoon, it was more of the same for the stretch four-man. In the second quarter, he kick-started the 12-3 run with a baseline three off a kickout pass from Berroa. In the third quarter, he sparked another run with a momentous two-handed slam that made it 53-36, taking a diagonal pass from Berroa across the paint and gathering just under the left block.
On the next trip down, Cambio hit a three from the left corner off a kickout pass from Nelson, before closing out the third quarter with a dagger three from the opposite corner, just before the buzzer sounded.
"I like that penetration," Cambio said of his affinity for playing close to the baseline. "Then I kick right out, when I can either step out and get the three or go in for the layup with a dunk. I like that."
Said Puello, "I've liked Cambio since the beginning. He was always in the gym in the summer, and seeing his development has been great. It's an asset to the team, it's good. As long as he's playing well, we're all playing well."
Easing back into it: Since Puello went down with a high ankle sprain in the first minute of the Greater Lawrence Christmas Tournament semifinals last month, the Raiders coaching staff have erred on the side of caution. After all, the Raiders have a rough next month of a schedule that starts next weekend with Rhode Island powerhouse Bishop Hendricken and continues with rematches against Lowell, Andover, Lawrence and Prep. The Raiders are going to need a fully-healthy Puello come February; with the 6-foot-1 senior's relentless marking defense, the Raiders are one of the state's toughest outs.
Puello cringed from the sidelines as he was held out of games against Andover, Lawrence (twice) and Springfield Cathedral (at the Hoophall Classic in Springfield), but knows it's for the best interest of both him and the team. This afternoon's performance, though, had to be encouraging.
Coming off the bench, Puello first entered the game with 1:39 left in the first quarter and immediately got to work. On one of his first possessions, an Eagles inbound play, Puello hip-checked Shove out of bounds as he came around the baseline on a backdoor cut, eventually leading to an out-of-bounds violation. At the other end, Hammel hit a layup that extended the lead to 19-13. The next trip down, Puello notched a steal in the open floor.
"He's just so active, and his athleticism alone makes plays for him," Nault said. "You could still see he's rusty, he's hobbling a little bit, and I think it's affecting him more on the offensive end than the defensive end. When we get him back full-speed, I think defensively we're going to be pretty tough."
"It's a process," Puello said. "But little by little, we'll get healthy and I'll get back to where I need to be."