NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. -- A hallmark of a great team is its ability to play well on its home court, regardless of the opponent.
No. 13 North Andover did that Friday, holding off a late rally from No. 2 Lowell to win a 57-55 nail biter for a tone-setting Merrimack Valley Conference victory.
“The fans probably enjoyed it more than the coaches,” said North Andover (9-1) coach Michael McVeigh. “The swings in the game were ridiculous. We held on, it’s as simple as that, against a Lowell (9-1) team that is, deservedly so, ranked very, very high in the state.
“It feels good because I think I went nine or ten deep tonight, and every single one of them did something out there, whether it was a big shot or a big defensive play. So it was a real gutsy win to hold on.”
Lowell actually led for the first 22 minutes of the game. However, the largest lead it ever had throughout the game was seven points.
North Andover tied the game after going on a 9-2 run to end the third. It carried over all the momentum into the fourth, starting the frame on a 13-2 run to bring its lead to double-digits and put Lowell back on its heels.
“I guess we just wanted it more in the fourth quarter,” said North Andover’s Chris Bardwell (24 points, six rebounds). “I was telling everyone that we can’t give up our momentum and we can’t pull back. We were doing everything: getting second shots, making smart choices, we boxed out. We played smart in the fourth.”
With three minutes left in the game, Lowell slowly started to close the gap. Facing a 10-point deficit, Lowell’s Zaryn Green launched a three to make it 56-49. Two possessions later, Drew Healy (nine points, five rebounds) was fouled going up for a lay up. He made one of two free throws to make it a four-point game.
North Andover’s John Enright missed a corner three and the rebound was corralled by Lowell. At the other end of the floor, Green hit another three from the same spot beyond the left elbow to make it 56-55 with 20 seconds left.
Lowell quickly fouled on the ensuing inbounds pass, which insured it would get one more possession with at least a chance to tie.
The Red Raiders got the ball with 17 seconds remaining. With a Lowell player trapped in the left corner, North Andover attacked the ball. The ball was knocked out of bounds, but it remained Lowell ball. After getting one final look at the basket, Isaiah Nelsen (15 points, 14 rebounds) pulled down the final rebound, which iced the game for his team and gave Lowell is first loss of the season.
“They’re a great team,” said Nelsen. “We played a really good game. We fought the whole time. They made their run and we held them off. I think this is a great statement and a great entry into the MVC.”
Inside and out: Early on, it was evident that Lowell’s gameplan was to deny Nelsen from getting the ball in the post. By taking away what the Knights do well, the Red Raiders hoped it would force them to look for other ways to attack. It matched up its center, Healy, with him in the low block; but whenever North Andover tried to set up for an entry pass, another defender would rotate over and deny Nelsen from getting the ball.
While that strategy initially kept him out of the scorebook, it opened up others, like Bardwell, to attack and hit short jumpers. Later in the game, the floor opened up for Nelsen, and he was able to attack the basket to get rebounds and second-chance opportunities that weren’t there for him earlier in the game.
“In the first half, I got a lot of double-teams,” he said. “Bardwell played outstanding in the first half. That’s one thing that’s really good about this team: you can’t really double one of us because that just opens up another one, and we just have so many weapons that can score.”
That didn’t stop McVeigh from trying to get the ball inside to his favorite post player.
“A coach wants to take you out of what you do best,” he said. “So what do you do? So now you go along with the other coach? Now I’ll just shoot it from the outside? That’s what I told our kids at halftime. We’re doing what they want us to do if we don’t keep on making a concerted effort to look inside. That doesn’t mean you always go there, that doesn’t mean you turn it over or force things. But I’m an old-school guy, and if that’s what we do well, and they’re trying to take us away from it, you’re going to have to really, really do it to make us stop doing what we want to.”
Smaller, faster: In the third quarter, Lowell was finding success with a rather unorthodox lineup. When it’s said that a team went small, that is usually relative to its overall height and the height of the other team. Friday, against the 6-foot-5 Bardwell and 6-foot-6 Nelson, Lowell went really small.
Its tallest player, Drew Healy, went to the bench early in the third with three fouls, so coach Scott Boyle had to look elsewhere to match up with North Andover’s players down low.
There were times when 6-foot Zaryn Green (12 points), the same guard that hit the two three-pointers in the final minutes, was matched up on Bardwell around the basket. Jonathan Perez and Hakeem Turay, 6-foot and 6-foot-1 respectively, guarded Nelson at various points in the quarter. The Knights did the best they could to attack those mismatches, but for the most part, the Lowell players held their own and held their lead until late in the quarter.
“There’s an old coaches adage, ‘You have to find ‘em to hit ‘em,” said McVeigh. “That’s why a lot of great rebounders are not your seven-footers. There are guys who are quick to the ball and have that will to get it. Lowell absolutely had it down the stretch. The number of second shots they had were killers.”
Inspired by loss: During long seasons in sports, teams and observers can often look at a particular time period, occasion, or moment that either defines a team’s season or turns it around. It is possible North Andover could’ve had its already.
On Dec. 20 in the opening round Greater Lawrence Christmas Tournament, North fell to No. 11 Andover 76-62. At first glance, the score appears lopsided, but that game actually went to overtime. It was only in the extra frame that Andover pulled away.
So how could a team with so much promise like North Andover come out so flat against a rival when the game mattered most? The result did not sit well with anyone on the team, and it has since ripped off six wins in a row just as it is getting into the heart of its schedule.
“That game showed us that we’re a much better team than we were,” said Bardwell. “We improved so much. We’ve been practicing harder, we’ve been doing everything harder. It’s just been awesome after that game. We came together, we believed in ourselves, and we’ve been doing great after that game.”
“That game motivated this win,” added Nelson. “After that game, we’ve been practicing so much harder, we’ve been getting here earlier, we’ve been running stairs before practice. That’s been our motivation and we’re not going to let that happen again.”