LAWRENCE, Mass. -- It was the perfect response at the absolutely perfect time in the game.
With a minute and a half left in Sunday matchup between No. 9 Central Catholic and No. 12 St. John’s Prep, Prep’s Kareem Davis drained a three-pointer from the right wing to tie the game at 57. On the ensuing Central possession, Tyler Nelson came down the floor and hit a pull-up three to give his team the lead back and drain any momentum Prep had.
A minute later, Prep senior Max Burt hit a three from the left wing to cut the lead to two points. Prep chose to foul Central big Aaron Hall to make him shoot two free throws. As the Eagles hoped, he missed both. At the other end of the floor, Prep missed two shots and Central’s Nick Cambio came down with the rebound. With 1.5 seconds left on the clock, the senior co-captain hit one of two free throws to make it a three-point game.
Prep threw a last-ditch deep inbounds pass, but Hall came down with it to run out the clock. Central held on to win 63-60.
“This is a very intense rivalry, but it’s a respected rivalry,” said Central (14-4) coach Rick Nault. “We have other rivalries where there is feelings involved, but this one is out of mutual respect. They’re extremely well-coached, always classy kids, who always play the game the right way. We’ve had some really classic games the past 5-6 years and tonight was another one.”
Central started the first two quarters slowly, falling behind by as many as 10 points before increasing its intensity and execution. It ended each quarter down three and four points, respectively.
“We needed to talk more and have more communication on defense,” said Cambio (21 points, 10 rebounds). “We needed to rebound better and get tougher. We needed to get down and play defense as a team, and we did that.”
Central was having trouble defending Davis (14 points). On one possession midway through the second quarter, Davis dribbled the ball on the wing and waited for the offense to spread the floor. When it was set, he beat his man off the dribble and attacked the basket. At the hoop, he left the ball off for Mike Bisson (9 points, 13 rebounds) for an easy layup.
With both teams having already punched their tickets to the postseason, there is a possibility both team’s can play again this season. Cambio welcomes the challenge.
“I hope we see them in the playoffs, to be honest,” he said. “I really want to play them in the playoffs and have another battle. I love playing them. It’s always big to play St. John’s Prep. We always love beating them and they always love beating us, so when we get to play each other, it’s going to be a big game no matter what.”
Post-Up Success: In the first half, Central made a concerted effort to work the ball into the post to Cambio and Hall, but were not having much success. Either the entry passes resulted in turnovers or Prep had it so well defended that Central could not get a quality shot off.
In the second half, Central found more success with its ball movement and Princeton offense with Cambio. The Prep (13-4) defense was overcommitting to the swing passes and was focused on taking away any potential perimeter shot. This left Cambio open on the low block multiple times.
“What happens is the defense always focuses on Tyler, and the only person that can help on that play was Nick Cambio’s man,” said Nault. “We got it three or four times in the second half. If you sag off and go to help on Nick on the backdoor cut, we have Ty open, which we got a few looks out of that as well.”
Matching Expectations: Early in his high school career, Tyler Nelson had a reputation as a long-range shooter who played mostly on the perimeter. Now, because most of the state knows of his proficiency, every team puts their best defender on him every game. He has had to find more ways to get open and figure out what to do with the basketball when he has it.
That was exemplified three times in the second half of Sunday’s game on when he came down with a rebound, turned, and hit A.J. Pettway with an outlet pass for an easy layup.
“In the second half, they did a lot better job of picking me up when I got the ball in transition, so that kind of opened things up for A.J.,” Nelson said. “They kind of sagged and focused on me, Nick (Cambio), and Aaron (Hall), so for them to leak out for layups, it just happened to be there.”
He finished the game with 20 points and seven rebounds.
With the graduation of last year’s starting point guard, Lucas Hammel, Nelson has had the ball in his hands more this season. For a player that thrives playing off the ball and coming off screens to create his own shot, he has had to become more of an all-around scorer instead of being simply a jump shooter.
“He is a scorer, one of the best that we’ve had,” said Nault. “He gets to the lane and creates fouls and finds others. Down the stretch, we got a few baskets from Nick Cambio because all the attention was on Tyler, so he makes the assist for an easy layup. Right now, he’s just playing at a different level than he was even six or seven games ago.”
He had nine points going into halftime, but found ways to get open and help his team in the second half. He was also a perfect 8-for-8 from the free throw line in the game. Central has more youth in its backcourt this year than it has been used to in recent years, so Tyler is relied on to score in big spots in the game, and Sunday was no different. When his team needed a basket towards the end of the game, he drained the decisive three.
“First half, he was struggling a little, but Tyler always comes through and always pushes himself and always ends up hitting shots in the second half,” said Cambio. “That helps us a lot.”