DANVERS, Mass. -- Can't all be pretty wins now, can they?
The No. 1 St. John's Prep Eagles won in a variety of ways in 2010 -- big, small, running, pressing -- but to kick off the 2011 portion of the season they had to dig their shoulders to the wheel. Pat Connaughton (22 points, 12 rebounds) gave Prep some breathing room with three 3-pointers in the third quarter, and his teammates eventually shut the door in the fourth en route to a 63-45 win over No. 18 Boston College High, winning the Catholic Conference opener for both teams, but this was far from a finesse game.
No, with all of the physical play under the rim, perpetuated by BC's frontcourt of Justin Roberts and Dan Curtis, this was a physical battle where both teams struggled early on from the perimeter and slugged it out for rebounds underneath the backboard.
"It was a good win for us," Prep head coach Sean Connolly said. "We grinded it out defensively. Offensively, we weren't very good, but you know you've got to credit BC High for that. I'm proud of the way we defended."
BC High (4-3) trapped well on the sidelines, confused Prep with a variety of three-quarter presses, and did an admirable job disguising and stacking their zone looks in the half-court. Prep players were pondering just how to classify it, even after all was said and done.
"It was weird, they kept switching it up," said senior point guard Connor Macomber, playing in his first action since tearing his right MCL on the third day of practice late last November. "They did a good job trapping in the corners. It was a weird defense."
Connaughton thought it was "kind of an awkward 2-3 zone, but I don't know if you even call it 2-3 zone, 1-3-1."
"I don't what it is, some type of weird defense that we tried to simulate in practice," he continued. "But it was kinda tough because they do it, and we don't, so we don't know exactly how to play it. So when they were playing it, we got through it the first half, and then in the second half, we settled down, and concentrated on getting the zone to move more."
Prep began to show success with that strategy midway through the second quarter, when Connaughton took the ball along the right wing, drawing a help defender over, and Steve Haladyna slid into the weakside post. The junior forward took a perfectly-placed pass from Connaughton, drew contact, and converted the ensuing three-point play to make it 18-13 with 5:40 left in the first half.
From there, the Prep crept to a 27-18 halftime lead before Connaughton took over in the third with some well-executed catch-and-shoot plays. His final three of the quarter, from the left wing courtesy a backdoor cut and dish from Owen Marchetti, made it 44-29. But even when he missed, his teammates bailed him out; junior Michael Carbone tipped back Connaughton's errant three at the buzzer to take a 17-point lead into the fourth quarter.
And while BC couldn't make a game of it again -- out of a Connolly timeout at the six-minute mark of the fourth, Prep responded with a 14-2 run -- a message clearly has been sent that this will not be a one-horse Catholic Conference race.
"They got us at their pace, slowing it down, running their sets, being physical," Connolly said. "They did a good job at that."
Bowdoin-bound Bryan Hurley led BC High with 15 points, while Roberts led on the glass with nine boards.
"Bryan plays a good game for us, he tries to get everybody involved," BC High head coach Bill Loughnane said of Hurley. "He probably wishes he made a couple of those shots, but you know, that happens in the game of basketball."
EASING BACK INTO IT
With a big black brace over his right knee, Macomber wasted no time making his impact felt in his first game action of the 2010-11 season, crashing to the floor but nailing an off-balance three-pointer to tie it up at 4-4 in the first minutes of the defensive slugfest.
Macomber has made a quick recovery from the MCL injury he suffered in the preseason, thanks to an intense twice-a-day rehabilitation program -- "I was doing alot of stuff," he laughed. Three first-half fouls kept him on the bench, but he admitted that getting up to speed on conditioning, and getting back on the same page with Connaughton -- with whom he shared a great chemistry in their surprise run to the Division 1 North finals last year -- may take a hot minute.
"I felt good," Macomber said. "I'm just trying to get back into the flow of things, this is obviously different from practice. But this felt good, playing in front of big crowds, we always get nice crowds. It's alot of fun."
Struggling to find the next words, he finally sighed with a big smile and a chuckle, "I'm just pumped to be back."