LAWRENCE, Mass. -- It wasn’t going to happen again.
In the past six seasons, No 9 Lowell was the only team to beat No. 1 Central Catholic on its home floor, and that was last season.
Central was out Friday to make sure that was not going to happen again, and it showed by never playing from behind blowing out the visiting team 70-49.
“We talked about (last season), no question we talked about it,” said Central (10-1) coach Rick Nault. “We take a lot of pride in our homecourt record, so we talked all week about let’s come out ready to go, right from the start. Let’s not get off to a slow start where we’re playing from behind. I thought for the most part we came out pretty hungry.”
With the state tournament getting closer by the day, it is possible the two teams will see each other two more times this season. Before that could happen, Central had to avenge the only blemish on its home record in these players high school careers.
“We all had a chip on our shoulder (coming into the game),” said Lucas Hammel (16 points, four rebounds, two steals). “Last year, they came into our house and we were embarrassed by them because that was the first time we had lost in years at home. I think we really wanted to show that we were completely focused from the start and prove to everyone out there that least year was a fluke and this year we could beat them.”
Central came out early with heavy ball pressure against the Lowell (10-2) guards. Hammell and Tyler Nelson (21 points) were front and center of the Central three-quarter pressure. They slowed the Lowell guards down enough for a teammate to come over and assist, sometimes creating turnovers and transition baskets.
“We’ve always prided ourselves on defense,” said Hammell. “I thought on defense we played really well. We always have good chemistry as a team, but I think defensively... They have great players like Jonathan Perez (5 points) and Kareem Davis (7 points), but I think we forced them to shoot like 6-of-24. I think it really all came together for us tonight.”
Offensively, Nelson put on a show early, whether it was hitting two three-pointers when spotting up against the Lowell zone defense, scoring on floaters in the lane, or getting layups off outlet passes from his teammates. It was not until the second half, when Lowell decided to double-team him consistently, that he was considerably slowed down.
The closest the game ever got was when it was tied 4-4 with 5:52 left in the first quarter. Over the next four minutes, Lowell was held scoreless, which allowed Central to pull away and never look back.
It was evident it was going to be Central’s night when in the second quarter, Tyler Nelson made a shot in the post while seated on the ground. He attacked the basket, failed to come up with the initial rebound, but the second rebound fell right into his hands. In what looked like pure reflexes, he immediately put the ball up, and it rolled into the net, forcing even the Lowell faithful to recognize a quality shot when it saw one.
“I don’t even know,” he said after the game. “All I remember is I was on the ground, the ball game down and I said, “What the heck, I’ll just shoot it.”
Teeing off: Central went on a 13-0 run in the first quarter, mainly due to its transition offense. When Lowell worked the ball underneath its basket and put up a shot, its guards collapsed around the hoop for a potential rebound. Seeing this, Nelson would often leak out to around halfcourt, which left him open for an outlet pass with a free lane to the basket.
Lowell struggled to get back on defense, which allowed Central easy layups at the other end.
“Our frontcourt rebounds so well, so we give some guys some leeway in terms of taking off when they make a certain read on the floor,” said Nault. “We had some opportunities there where they weren’t really crashing that well and they weren’t getting back, so we allowed a few guys to take off and we got some easy buckets.”
“We’ve been noticing in the past couple games with different teams that not a lot of teams in this league have great transition defense,” said Hammel. “So we’ve noticed that we can run, and we can get out on them. I think we really showed that tonight.”
Zone breakers: In a surprising move, Lowell started the game in a zone defense, seemingly challenging Central to shoot from the outside. With long-range shooters like Tyler Nelson, Doug Gemmell, and so forth, it was a style Central was more than happy to play.
“We realized there were lineup changes different from what we had in the scouting report," Nelson said. "They had (Callen Vail) start, so we figured right off the bat it was because they had to go zone because they weren’t going to match up man-to-man.”
Occasionally, when Central swung the ball to one side of the court, Lowell’s guards would over-pursue the ball, leaving a man open on the weak side. If he was not already there to begin with, a Central player would cheat out behind the defense, getting himself open for a long-range shot.”
“They dropped down and I flared weak side and got a few open looks to start the game, so that helped a lot,” Nelson added.
Foul Trouble: The game got much easier early on for Central when Lowell’s Drew Healy had to exit the game in the first quarter after picking up two quick fouls. He returned minutes into the second quarter, but had to exit again after quickly picking up his third.
During the game, the 6-foot-7 center appeared to injure his back when he attacked the basket on a potential layup. Lowell had moved the ball around well during that possession and found Healy alone along the baseline. Seeing no traffic between him and the hoop, he attacked the basket. The Central defense closed in on him, sending him crashing to the floor. He got up, but was quickly taken out of the game.
Upon exiting the game, he went over to the scorers table and crouched down, as though trying to fight through the pain. Later in the game, during timeouts, he could not sit down, instead having to stand along the bench to avoid his back tightening up on him.
“He changes the game, he just takes away everything inside,” said Nault. “He’s long, he’s athletic, and trying to score inside is tough when he’s in there. Lucky for us, we were able to get him in foul trouble early.”
On the court, this forced Lowell to go with a smaller lineup, with 6-foot-4 Robert Allard (13 points) and 6-foot-4 Callen Vail (4 points) as its primary big men. Central’s guards were able to attack the basket effectively off the dribble, knowing Lowell’s shot-blocking threat was on the bench.
“That was huge because he’s a good shot blocker,” said Hammel. “He really disrupts things in the paint, so for him to get out early with three fouls, it really opened up the paint for our guards to drive.”