LAWRENCE, Mass. -- The quarterfinal matchup between the Central Catholic and Lawrence boys basketball teams at the Greater Lawrence Christmas Tournament on Thursday felt a lot more like a final.
These crosstown rivals battled in an intense, up-tempo game that the Red Raiders won, 69-56, as Central rode last year’s tournament MVP, senior center Jimmy Zenevitch, and his 31 points and 20 rebounds. Either Lawrence or Central has won the tournament title 14 straight times, with the Red Raiders grabbing 11 since 1996.
“I’m sure a lot of people will say these are the best two teams of the tournament,” said Central coach Rick Nault, whose team improved to 4-0 with the win. “Andover’s extremely good. But this is a rivalry game. It’s the first round of the tournament. It’s a shame it was in the first round. But any time we play Lawrence it’s always special.”
The Red Raiders held a tenuous five-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, but Zenevitch scored 12 of his team’s first 14 points of the final stanza. He finished with 14 points in the fourth and seemed to gobble up every rebound available, as Lawrence was held to a minimal amount of second chances.
“I have certain goals for myself for this year, and coming back as a tournament championship and tournament MVP is definitely one of them,” said Zenevitch, who looks perfectly capable of achieving those goals. “So that’s one thing I’m really looking for and working for.”
Central junior guard and Lawrence native Luis Puello had nine points, eight rebounds and three assists, but his presence was felt mostly on the defensive end, where he harassed Lancer point guard Jaylen Alicea and held the senior to 11 points. Puello’s three-point play with 1:52 to play extended the Red Raiders’ lead to 64-54 and helped seal the win.
“It’s like my state championship game,” Puello said of playing Lawrence. “I hear about it all week: ‘They’re better than me.’ I love it. I look forward to it every time and I play with my heart and soul to play them.”
Asked if his performance and Central’s win was good for bragging rights, he quickly replied with a laugh, “Oh, you have no idea.”
Two underclassmen also played key roles in the win for Central. Sophomore forward Joel Berroa had 10 points and 11 rebounds, while freshman sharpshooter Tyler Nelson came off the bench and drained a trio of 3-pointers to finish with 11 points.
Senior Yadoris Arias led Lawrence (2-1) with 13 points.
The Lancers forced Central to turn the ball over 23 times, but couldn’t take advantage of the extra possessions because of the Red Raiders’ superb halfcourt defense. Lawrence shot less than 30 percent from the field, including a 5-for-28 performance from beyond the arc.
“At the start of the fourth quarter I was very concerned because our best team defender, Jaycob Morales, was on the bench with foul trouble,” Nault said. “And then when we put him back in he picked up his fifth right away. But if you were ever to visit one of our practices, we spend 75 percent of the time on our defensive philosophy.”
It worked, as Lawrence had a four-minute stretch in the fourth quarter without a field goal that allowed the Red Raiders to extend their lead from three points to eight points with a little over three minutes to go.
In a back and forth first half, Central went into the break with a 28-26 lead. Six-foot-6 Lawrence senior Jesse Hiraldo (six points, six rebounds, five blocks, two assists) did a good job of making Zenevitch work for everything he got, but foul trouble limited his minutes in the second half and the 6-7 Zenevitch took advantage.