NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. -- Outside the locker room at North Andover High's field house, where the No. 5 Scarlet Knights had just strung together a nice 73-50 defeat of border rival No. 11 Andover, coach Mike McVeigh was told by a reporter the stat line for senior Chris Bardwell, and he couldn't believe it.
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph," he muttered.
A few moments later, Bardwell appeared from the locker room, and McVeigh turned to him to ask: "Thirty-four, are you kidding me?"
"Wasn't keeping track," Bardwell grinned.
To which McVeigh quickly shot back, chuckling, "Yeah, you better not be."
It was a career-high and career-defining night for the 6-foot-5 senior, who transferred into NA from Central Catholic for his senior season and made his impact felt almost immediately. Tonight's effort -- 34 points, 14 rebounds, and a pair of pretty assists -- rectified that impact.
Good players know how to get to the rim, and Bardwell did exactly that in the first half, starting off 8-of-9 from the field and finishing shooting 66.6 percent from the floor (14-of-21), mostly coming on high-percentage bunnies around the rim or put-backs. Though there were some dazzling plays, like the one-handed underhand finish off a long Derek Collins lob in transition in the second quarter; or getting his own put-back off his own missed free throw; or one of the more good-karma put-backs of his season, positioning himself at the foul line for a long rebound and hucking it back at the rim one-handed.
But mostly, it was about finding open space in the paint and making the most of it -- "Our mentality was just to go all out," he said.
And all of that keeps NA (14-2, 13-1) in the hunt for the Merrimack Valley Conference's Large division title, in the Knights' first year of league membership. Headed into Tuesday's matchup with Central Catholic (14-3, 11-1), the two teams are tied for first, with one loss each in the league (Central to NA on Jan. 29, NA to Andover on Jan. 18).
"I didn't want to lose," Bardwell said. "I know on the line [tonight] was the MVC title. I know us coming into the MVC in our first year and winning the MVC title [would be] outrageous. It's never happened before, a team coming in and winning, so...I was just ready to play. We were all ready to play. We played smart. We were just awesome as a team, everything."
Leading 35-26 at the half, the Knights came out firing on all cylinders from long distance to start the third, outscoring the Golden Warriors (12-5) by a wide margin, 24-8. That included five 3-pointers, including a back-to-back-to-back swing by Derek Collins (11 points) and Brett Daley that put the Knights up 50-31 with 2:42 to go in the frame.
Also helping the cause was a dominant presence on the boards. Just as they were in last week's historic upset of Central Catholic, the Knights were everywhere on rebounds. With margin for error, the Knights unofficially held a 42-16 advantage on rebounds, including a 17-2 edge in the second quarter, thanks to the presence of St. Anselm-bound 6-foot-5 senior Isaiah Nelsen (14 points, 10 rebounds).
That's quite the turnaround from the previous two meetings this year. In their first meeting on Dec. 20, in the first round of the Greater Lawrence Christmas Tournament, the Warriors prevailed 76-63 in overtime. The second time around, on Jan. 18, Andover won 64-52 in regulation.
"There's nothing ever easy about Andover," McVeigh said. "We can't do anything about the first two, all we could do is try to grab one of the three, and that's what the kids did."
Andover was led in scoring by senior Chris Dunn (14 points), who started with three 3-pointers to open the first quarter. The Warriors also got 10 points from Jack Konevich, and nine each from Sam Dowden and David Giribaldi.
Lob City Lite: Late in the third quarter, NA junior forward Casey Walsh heaved up an alley-oop pass from the left wing that found Bardwell on the weak-side post, running for a dramatic lay-in and drawing a foul in the process for a three-point play. McVeigh turned to a reporter seated near the scorer's table and cracked, "You're smiling, but I'm not."
It's not McVeigh's preferred method, but tonight the Knights excelled at the lob, mostly when used as an outlet pass to trigger a fast break. The game opened with a breakaway two-handed slam from Nelsen, firing up the home crowd. In the first 4:20 of the game, the Knights scored three times off deep lobs in the fast break, with either Nelsen or Bardwell crashing down the lane for an easy layup.
"I'm telling you, we're a fast break team," Bardwell said. "They were running a 1-3-1...We'd just bring it up, pass middle, pass to the side, and they just found me. It worked beautifully."
Sentimental visit: Bardwell's visit Tuesday night to Central Catholic's famed Memorial Gymnasium will be his first since he last suited up for the Raiders a year ago. Bardwell had nothing but good things to say about Central, and credits coach Rick Nault (who was in attendance tonight) for helping his development as a rebounder.
But make no mistake, Tuesday night is going to be a big night not just for Bardwell, but for the NA program itself. On Jan. 29, the Knights upset Central in dramatic fashion, rallying from an 18-point deficit midway through the third quarter to earn the program's first win over the Raiders since 1986. Another win over Central on Tuesday would sweep the season series, and put the Knights in pole position for the MVC Large title -- a spot few predicted coming into the season for the Knights, in their first year since moving from the Cape Ann League.
"I'm coming into that game roaring," Bardwell said. "It's going to be unbelievable. We're all pumped up. I'm going to come in with the same enthusiasm I came into with this game, and it's going to be awesome. It's going to be probably the best experience of my life. And we're ready."
And the expected capacity crowd? Bardwell thinks, "It's gonna be insane."
Does he expect that crowd to be riding him?
"All game," he laughed. "I was talking to this kid, he said they've already got chants ready. They're gonna rock."