LAWRENCE, Mass. -- It had everything one would expect from a state tournament game: intensity, physicality, and a touch of last minute heroics.
With 30 seconds to go and the score tied at 48, Central Catholic’s Tyler Nelson came off a perimeter screen and knocked down a three-pointer to put his team ahead.
Coming out of a timeout, Cambridge’s Isiah McLeod hit a quick layup to cut the lead down to one. After another timeout, Central inbounded the ball to Nelson, who was fouled. He hit both to make it a three-point game.
Cambridge had one last possession to tie the game. It looked to get the ball to Demetrius Woodson, who had already hit three three-pointers in the second half. Fredens Deneus held the ball, waiting for Woodson to get open. As he struggled to find space, Deneus threw the ball into the backcourt where it was picked up and dribbled away by Central’s Nick Cambio. The clock ran down and Central came away with a 53-50 victory to move on to the Division 1 North semifinals.
“We knew it was going to be an incredibly tough game and we knew it was going to be a physical game,” said Central Catholic coach Rick Nault. “Fortunately for us, we made some nice plays at the end with Nick Cambio (13 points) and Tyler Nelson (27 points, 7 rebounds), our two captains carrying us in key moments of the game.
"They’ve been through these wars before, they’ve played in big games, and they’ve been through the tournament runs so we rely on them to make plays when the game is on the line, and they absolutely did that tonight.”
The game was back and forth the entire night. Even going into halftime, Central (19-5) had a two-point lead, but Jakigh Dottin (13 points) hit a runner in the lane to tie it at 18 going into the break.
Cambridge (16-6) took the lead midway through the fourth quarter when a Deneus steal lead to an easy layup for McLeod (13 points) at the other end. Central answered with a basket of its own on its next possession.
The two teams traded free throws until Nelson his a three from the right corner to make it 47-44. McLeod was fouled driving to the basket, so he went to the line and made both free throws to cut the lead down to one.
The teams each took turns at the free throw line, seemingly losing that physical let-them-play the referees allowed earlier in the game.
Aaron Hall, Central’s starting center, fouled out of the game with 57 seconds to go. Deneus made one of two free throws, but Dottin got the rebound and a outback to tie the game at 48.
Nelson hit the three-pointer and Central is on to the semi-finals.
Cambio comes through: Cambio was held scoreless the entire first half, which is uncommon. Usually, Central looks to establish he and Aaron Hall (8 points, 4 rebounds) early in the paint with various post-ups and pick and roll actions. In the first half Friday, he was not allowed to establish position in the post and his team’s offensive performance suffered because of it.
Nault tried to light a fire under his co-captain at halftime, and the senior responded with a 13-point second half.
“We had a little talk at halftime and challenged him to be more assertive and stop fading away,” said the coach. “It seemed like in the first half, he seemed very tentative and fading away and taking jumpers. We told him you have to dominate that paint in the second half and he absolutely did that.”
Central opened the second half with Cambio isolated on the low block against Deneus (2 points, 12 rebounds). He received entry passes from the guards and either challenge his man one-on-one or pass out and look for a better opportunity. It helped that the referees were allowing each player to attempt to establish position underneath, which lead to a physical battle for paint supremacy.
“I missed every single shot I took in the first half,” said Cambio. “At halftime, he gave it to me and got me going a little. I just had to go out and execute for my team because I was not losing this game tonight.”
Rematch with Prep on tap: Central moves on to play St. John’s Prep in the semifinals of the Division 1 North tournament. It is another rematch from the regular season. In the first meeting on Feb. 9, Central won 63-60 in a hotly-contested thriller. This time the game will be played on a neutral floor where the loser’s season ends.
“Next game is going to be a crazy game, I can’t wait for it,” said Cambio. “It’s going to be a battle. Harder battle than this game, I can tell you that.”
St. John’s Prep defeated Lowell Friday, 74-67, for the right to advance.
“We’ve beat them before, but we can’t go into the game saying hey we beat them, so we’re going to beat them again,” said Nelson. “We know we have to prepare. They have a grew starting five, they have a great bench. They’re well-coached. We really have to come out and play better than we did tonight.”