LAWRENCE, Mass. -- In this MIAA basketball season of constant surprise, one of the few guarantees was that Central Catholic would live up to its preseason No. 1 billing and head into the Division 1 North tournament as a bona fide favorite.
So maybe this next part is anticlimactic.
Before a capacity home crowd, the Raiders hosted archrival Andover in the finale of its Merrimack Valley Conference slate, and as typical of intense rivalries, the Golden Warriors made a run at them. But the Raiders never trailed from start to finish, eventually rolling away in the fourth quarter to a 72-54 win.
With the win, Central improved to 17-1 and wrapped up its league slate at 14-1 -- the Raiders have already clinched their sixth straight league title. In the last five seasons, the Raiders have lost just three MVC contests -- twice to Lowell (2008, 2012) and once to Andover (2010). The Warriors fell to 11-7 on the season, and finish their league schedule 9-5.
"It means a lot to us," sophomore Tyler Nelson (17 points) said of the league championship streak. "We have a lot of goals this year, and we really want to go out there and make a statement, and try and reach our ultimate goal of reaching the tournament and making a run."
The Raiders led 44-32 at the break, thanks to a perfect first half from Nelson. The point guard was 5-for-5 from the field, including two 3-pointers, and 5-for-5 from the foul line in one of his better first-half performances of the season.
"They didn't play box-and-one like the first time we met them," Nelson said. "So it was a little bit easier getting my shot off, and I was just knocking them down. I felt good from the start, and I knew I was going to keep making them."
But Andover came storming out of the gates to start the third quarter, opening with an 8-0 run. Chris Dunn (20 points) capped the run with a three-pointer that cut the Central lead to 44-40, pulling up to the right wing and letting loose.
That was as close as the Warriors got the rest of the way. Over the final 12 minutes, Central outscored the Warriors 28-14 behind some tough interior play facilitated by junior Joel Berroa (14 points) and sophomore Nick Cambio (11 points, seven rebounds).
"It wasn't the way we wanted to start the second half," Central head coach Rick Nault said. "I don't think we adjusted properly to start that second half. Then I thought we just went inside, and dominated the paint -- not only in scoring, but getting the ball in the post."
Max Silveira also chipped in 15 points for Andover in the loss.
Foul trouble: Central poses many a matchup problem on any given night, particularly when they go with a lineup that has all three of its true bigs -- Berroa, Cambio and junior Doug Gemmell -- on the floor. That was evident tonight against the undersized Andover front, drawing them out of position on plays around the rim, especailly in the first half. Central went to the line for 19 free throw attempts in the first half, making all of them, while Andover attempted just five and made four.
"We feel like when we have the three bigs on the floor together, we feel we've always have a mismatch somewhere," Nault said. "Our focus point is to try to get them the ball, and the fact that we can get fouled and knock them down from the free throw line is huge for us. That's always been the case in the past."
Andover head coach Dave Fazio chose not to say much on the matter, stating simply, "They shot 19 free throws, we shot five. End of statement. It is what it is. Whatever."
Puello on the mend again: It took nearly a month for star senior guard Luis Puello to get back to full strength after going down with a high ankle sprain during the Greater Lawrence Christmas Tournament in late December. Now, it appears the Raiders will continue to learn how to do without.
Puello, widely considered the state's best on-ball defender, was in street clothes on the bench tonight after re-injuring the same ankle in a 74-46 win over Haverhill last Friday. Nault said there is "honestly no timetable for a return", and estimates a "50-50" chance Puello returns at the starter of the Division 1 North tournament.
In the meantime, junior Lucas Hammel has taken on Puello's familar role of picking up the ballcarrier immediately and marking the best shooters all around the halfcourt.
"We'll take it day by day," Nault said of Puello's injury. "It took him four weeks to come back last time, and he's re-injured that same foot. So, I really don't know."
Dowden down as well: The Warriors have also been missing 6-foot-4 junior forward Sam Dowden, one of their top players, since spraining his ankle in a Feb. 7 win over Lowell. In Tuesday's 54-38 loss to Lowell, Dowden played less than eight minutes, and wasn't getting much push out of the foot.
Fazio considers Dowden "day to day", and has been erring on the side of caution with his recovery.
"If we're playing for a league title tonight, we probably give him a shot and let him run," Fazio said.
Fazio declares team will be 'dangerous': Answering questions about Dowden, Fazio noted the team's upcoming schedule -- a host tournament during February vacation, followed by the Division 1 North sectional -- and declared, "We're going to end up being a dangerous team."
"We're going to put all our pieces together," Fazio said. "We haven't put all our pieces together. The kids are hungry. A lot of teams are winding down in February, they're tired. These kids are hungry, and that says a lot about these guys."
And just what makes them so hungry?
"We've just got great kids, man," Fazio laughed. "We've got great kids like (senior captain) James Costello who pour their heart and soul into it. Sam Dowden's a warrior. We've just got a bunch of great kids who love basketball."