LAWRENCE, Mass. -- It all seemed too easy.
Heading into the fourth quarter its Wednesday night game against No. 9 Central Catholic, Andover had a 20-point lead. It seemed too easy that the team that beat BC High and Cambridge in back-to-back games earlier in the week was going to go quietly into the night. It was.
Central mounted a furious comeback in the fourth quarter, enough to cut the lead down to five points. But it was not enough, however, as Andover held on to win 76-65 in both teams’ final regular season game.
“It’s never easy,” said Andover coach Dave Fazio. “I just think when you get up 20, crazy things happen. The other team starts making three’s, you start stumbling a little bit, calls change. I mean, it’s high school basketball. You’ve got to play for 32 minutes.”
Early in the fourth, Central made a small run to trim the lead to 15 points, but Andover fought back and it was 64-44 midway through the quarter. Then Tyler Nelson hit back-to-back three-pointers to bring life back into the building.
Over the next three minutes, Central worked to get the lead down even more. It finally got it back to single digits when Nick Cambio (9 points, 10 rebounds) stole the ball and sent it ahead to Kevin Fernandez (6 points) for a transition layup.
On the next possession, Andover’s John Pisacreta (17 points) missed the front end of a one-and-one. Tyler Nelson (32 points, 6 rebounds) secured the rebound and hit a spot-up three to make it 65-60 with a minute to go.
Connor Merinder (10 points, 12 rebounds, 3 blocks) hit one of two free throws on Andover’s next possession, and Cambio hit a layup at the other end to make it a four-point game.
Forced to foul with 52 seconds left in the game, Central sent Andover freshman E.J. Perry to the line for two shots. As he has seemed to do most of the season, he came through for his team and hit both free throws to extend the lead.
“We don’t even really see E.J. as a freshman any more,” said Merinder. “Sometimes there’s a feeling on a team that a freshman shouldn’t really take the big shots, but we have none of that. We let him take big shots in a time crunch and he keeps making them, we keep letting him fire them.”
Cambio was called for a charge on a pick-and-roll play with Nelson that ended up being the deciding call of the game. Converted free throws extended the Andover lead even more. Merinder put an exclamation point on the game with a block of a Cambio three-pointer.
Andover took the season series over Central with the win. The Golden Warriors’ other win came in the Commonwealth Classic Christmas tournament.
“You couldn’t even put into words how much we wanted to win this game,” said Merinder. “We haven’t won at Central in years, so we wanted to break that streak. We knew we could compete with them. We beat them at the Christmas tournament and they beat us at our house, so we said we weren’t going to lose to them again.”
With the win, Andover locked up a top-four seed in the upcoming state tournament. That guarantees that if it wins its first round matchup, it will get a quarterfinal game in its home gym. Central Catholic had already locked up a top-four seed going into Wednesday night’s game.
Nelson gives it a go: Initially, Tyler Nelson was not expected to play Wednesday. After spraining his ankle in Monday’s win over Cambridge, Central coach Rick Nault said he did not expect his star guard to be available against Andover. However, he came out for warmups for Central’s Senior Night showing no signs of a limp or any discomfort in the ankle.
He proceeded to score 32 points in the game, including 8 three-pointers. His play was a catalyst in Central’s fourth quarter charge.
'The Mad Hatter' strikes again: Andover’s David Giribaldi is the type of player that will drive a coach crazy with his off-balance and unconventional shot selection one second, and then hit a spot-up three or two clutch free throws to ice the game away.
Wednesday was no different. In the first half, he would drive to the basket and throw up and off-balance layup or try to beat his man off the dribble with a contested jumper from the elbow. In the second half, his game slowed down considerably. He hit a spot-up three from the left wing on one possession and made 8 of 9 free throws in the second half. He finished the game with 18 points and 4 rebounds.
“I was going to the hole pretty hard and I realized they (the referees) weren’t calling anything,” he said. “I really had to take it down a notch and focus on being on balance. Once I knew they were going to let us play, I knew I just needed to bring it down a notch.”
The coaches have grown accustomed to Giribaldi’s wild swings, and are willing to take the bad with the good if it means the team continues winning.
“We’ve come to expect that we’re going to get some bad shots, and that’s just a little bit of give and take,” said Fazio. “He plays the great defense he can play. He’s a killer. There’s such a fine line, and I don’t know man, we just kinda have to live with him. He killed it in the tournament last year and he’s a winner.”