New-look No. 1 Central ready to defend throne

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Springfield Central survived its first test on Monday night, taking everything a scrappy Agawam team had and came out with an 82-67 win.

Central led by nine at half and opened up a 17-point lead after three quarters. The Golden Eagles' lead quickly dwindled as the Brownies started the fourth on a 19-8 run, but in the end it was too much Central. The two big men inside, sophomore Chris Baldwin and senior Kamari Robinson, strung together back-to-back buckets in the final minutes to ice the game.

But still, it’s a reminder that the defending state champs -- a team that hasn’t lost to an in-state opponent in over a year (25 games) -- will get everyone’s best shot this season.

The experience and chemistry of last year’s team is gone, but the talent and potential is there, it’s just a matter of when the Golden Eagles can put it all together.

“The inexperience is the factor," head coach Mike Labrie said. "The key to the season is how fast we can grow together. We’re behind the eight ball, but no one is going to feel bad for us.”

Robinson, the senior captain, was the only returning member from last year’s championship team to suit up on Monday night. Senior guard Cornelius Tyson -- he of the memorable second-half outburst in the MIAA Division 1 state title game, knocking down four 3-pointers -- is academically ineligible.

However, Central still made noise during the summer, when the 6-foot-8 Baldwin enrolled at Central, after spending last season at the Hillside School (Conn.). Alongside, the 6-foot-5 Robinson, Central has one of the best frontlines in the state and it showed on Monday night. Robinson had a team-high 31 points, while Baldwin added 24 points, 16 rebounds, and three blocked shots.

“I was happy about it,” said Robinson on Baldwin’s transfer. “It helps me out a lot. It’s going to take a lot of stress of me and put another scorer in our arsenal.”

Baldwin already holds a Division I offer from UMass, which he picked up in the summer, as well as interest from Boston College and Boston University.

Early on in the season -– both in a scrimmage against St. John’s of Shrewsbury last week, and Agawam tonight -– teams have thrown zone defenses at the Golden Eagles, limiting the number of touches Baldwin can get in the post. Likely all teams Central faces this year will play some sort of zone pressure, which makes the guard play more critical for the Golden Eagles.

In Monday night’s win, Baldwin was doubled on the block and in the high post. But through the course of the game, when the Central guards could penetrate the zone, it became easier to free up Baldwin and Robinson.

“I think we have some pretty good guards, guys that can step up,” said Baldwin. “Overall we should be good with us in the post. We’ll need shooters to step up.”

For Labrie, the production of Tyrell Springer, Chris Prophet, and Lee Turner can’t be replaced, but they are finding contributions from several guards that made their way up the ranks of the Golden Eagles program, such as Josh Malone, Ju’an Williams, and Elliott Johnson.

“Some jayvee players got the privilege of playing up and I was one of them,” said Malone, a sophomore guard, who was part of an undefeated jayvee team last year. “So I got the experience playing against guys like Tyrell and Chris.”

In his first varsity start, Malone added 15 points, including a trio of three-pointers.

“He did better than I thought he would,” said Robinson. “He was hot from deep and played good defense.”

Defense was the trademark of Central’s run last year -- whether it be the second-half run the Golden Eagles put together to take down St. John’s of Shrewsbury in the state semifinals, or the seven-point halftime deficit tuned into a 19-point win in the state final against Brockton -- led by the strong defensive pressure of Central’s four guards.

Central will continue to see zone defenses trying to limit the strength in the post. Along with that, it will take time for Central to build chemistry with one another. But the defense is something that can stay consistent.

The Golden Eagles forced a lot of turnovers and wore down Agawam with its full-court pressure in the second half. The defensive spark last year was Springer, who played the pressure defense like a safety. Robinson is ready to take on that role this season, as he was able to come away with three steals for easy buckets in Monday night’s win.

“That’s what I got to be,” said Robinson. “I have to be a leader just like he (Springer) was last year.”

Central was none for their late game runs in 2011-2012. With a new roster and a long way until March, Central’s constant late-game runs will more likely be a late-season run.

“It’s going to take time to gel,” said Labrie. ““We have to be patient as a coaching staff. We’re going to have to go through our lows and learn from our mistakes.”

Big night for Agawam’s Tyler Desrosiers: Kamari Robinson, a returning ESPN Boston All-State, poured in 31 points -- good enough for a team-high, but not the game high. That honor went to Agawam’s junior forward, Tyler Desrosiers, who ended the night with 42 points.

“I didn’t expect to do that,” said Desrosiers. “I just tried to do as much as I could for my team.”

The 6-foot-1 Desrosiers began the night be covered by the smaller Josh Malone and then later in the first half covered by Robinson.

He used a spin move several time to create space, split the defense, and squeeze into the lane for open shots. He had an impressive body control, double-clutching to avoid the long reach of Baldwin and Robinson.

Central slowed Desrosiers' production in the third quarter, with full-court pressure, as Central’s athleticism and speed began to break Agawam down.

“Defensively and rebounding were the biggest part,” said the junior forward. “After a while it just wore on us.”

Desrosiers came back with a rally in the fourth, including a fast break layup where he went up one-on-one with Baldwin. Coming down the right side, Desrosiers threw his body into Baldwin drawing the foul, while converting on the layup.

Agawam, although not known as a basketball power in Western Mass., starts off the season on a better note than just a loss.

“I think overall we’re not going to take it as a complete victory,” said Desrosiers. “We’ll be fine if we play like this going into the rest of the season.”