LAWRENCE, Mass. -- For the past two weeks, there has been a reemergence of the Central Catholic team most prognosticators expected to be a serious contender for the Division 1 Massachusetts State Championship.
It has been the team that shocked the state back in January when it came within four points of beating national power St. Anthony (N.J.) in a game it was not expected to win.
Tuesday, Central continued its run by beating Merrimack Valley Conference foe Andover 61-48 to advance to the Division 1 North final Saturday.
Central (20-5) smothered Andover (16-7) defensively, forcing 19 turnovers and holding it to 10 points in the entire first half. Its only points in the quarter came on a David Giribaldi (15 points) three-pointer.
“They totally took us out of everything we were trying to do,” said Andover coach Dave Fazio. “We couldn’t turn the corner, couldn’t make shots. You’d figure with the season that we had that we wouldn’t play tentative, but their defense just locked us down. We couldn’t get to the rim, we couldn’t make shots, it was just a tough, tough night at the office.”
Conversely, everything seemed to go well for Central. It got scoring where it needed it (31 points from Tyler Nelson), rebounded well (20 combined rebounds from Joel Berroa, Aaron Hall, and Mike Barry), and got quality defense (4 steals by Nelson, 3 blocks from Hall).
“I’ve had a lot of great wins in my short seven years, had state championship wins, tournament wins, conference wins, but this might be one of the best wins we’ve ever had,” said Central coach Rick Nault. “I don’t know how many teams in the state can be without two of their top four players and win three games in the tournament and beat a team that just beat the No. 1 seed. For me, in my eyes, this is one of the great wins I’ve had in seven years.”
Hall fills role: Since two of Central’s five starters, Doug Gemmell and Nick Cambio, have been out with injuries, the team has relied on 6-foot-6 junior Aaron Hall to fill one of its starting forward positions. The team is used to playing without Gemmell -- who suffered a concussion earlier in the season, and is now dealing with a recurrence of symptoms -- but it is not used to playing without Cambio. The junior injured his hamstring in a Feb. 20 loss at Lowell.
Hall and Joel Berroa (11 points, eight rebounds) were tasked with defending Andover’s post pair of Sam Dowden and Connor Merinder. To say they succeeded would be an understatement, as they held them without a point each in the first half, and they finished with 12 and 1 point respectively. Eight of Dowden’s points came at the free throw line.
“We said to Joel that it was going to come down to who wins the battle of the two forwards, him or Dowden,” said Nault. “Is he going to outplay Dowden? If he does, we’re going to win. Or is Dowden going to get the better of him? If he does, we’re in trouble. Without Nick and Doug, Joel has to do so many more things than he’s used to doing, and he won that battle tonight.”
Hall may not have lit up the scoresheet (seven points, six rebounds, three blocks), but he made life difficult inside for Andover. Its guards had difficulty finishing at the rim off the dribble, and Dowden was unable to muscle his way around the post like he wanted to. Because they were unable to work the ball inside effectively, it had to rely on outside jump shooting to score, and it was one of those nights where the shots were just not going in.
“People don’t give him enough credit,” said Nelson. “He plays his heart out, he really does. He boxes out, rebounds, does all the little things for us. He was a key player for us tonight. We wouldn’t have played as well as we did the last three games of the year if it wasn’t for him playing and rebounding as well as he is right now, especially with Doug and Nick out.”
As the games continue, the stage is getting bigger and bigger, but Hall is showing no signs of inexperience or nerves.
“I know I just have to push, even if I’m tired, just give 110 percent the whole time,” he said. “If you don’t, it could be your last game, and you just have to try hard.”
Rapid Rebound: It is strange to believe a team can cruise through a state sectional tournament with two of its starting five gone with injuries, but that is what Central has done so far this postseason. When it was without Gemmell in February, it had its ups and downs, most notably a 22-point loss to Lowell 8 days before the tournament started. But now here it is, one win away from a sectional title and three wins away from a state championship.
“I don’t really have an answer for that,” Nelson said. “My best guess would be that we’re just playing really hard right now and real good team basketball. That’s what’s making us win and score a lot of points. We’re all working hard, especially on defense. A lot of our defense is causing a lot of offense, and me, Joel, and Lucas are playing really well together. Every guy that plays is stepping up right now.”
Nault credits focus and intensity for his team’s recent performance.
“We’re fighting and clawing every possession, and I think it showed that in the first half tonight,” he said. “Every possession, you have to fight and claw. You have to bump guys, be active, you gotta be talking. We’ve got to bring everything we can to the table every defensive possession, without those two guys, our two bigs.”
Embracing Hostility: Tyler Nelson has long drawn the ire and attention of Andover’s fan section, nicknamed "Jack’s Jungle". Such was the case Tuesday night, when they got into a tit-for-tat throughout the game. Any prolific scorer on any team is bound to hear chants of things like “Overrated!” when they walk into opposing gyms, but it is up to the player on the court to acknowledge them.
During one possession in the first half, Nelson was standing on the wing, directly in front of the Andover student section. After receiving a pass, he drove to the basket and hit one of the few fallaway jumpers he hit throughout the game. When the shot went in, he turned around, looked at the fans, said something, and ran back up the floor with his palms up.
He even heard negative chants later in the game, after Central had pulled away. When the game was over, he acknowledged he takes those chants and taunts and helps him use them to fuel his play.
“I definitely use it as fuel,” he said. “The first two times we played them, especially the first time, I didn’t have too good of a game and I got an “overrated” chant. So I kind of kept that in the back of my memory, and I made sure I got my revenge back in the end.”
Saturday Showdown: With the win, Central Catholic moves on to face Lynn English Saturday at the Tsongas Center for the Division 1 North title. The two teams did not play during the regular season, but English did play in the IAABO Board 130 Classic, which Central hosted. There, Nault was able to get a glance at his future opponent.
“They’re a very good defensive team, they trap all over the place,” he said. “The last time we played them in the Tsongas Arena, we got whacked, back in 2009. We have to prepare for them. They have a very athletic group, with two big guys up front, so it’s going to be an absolute challenge for us.”