FITCHBURG, Mass. -- Ryan Kelley swore it was a pass.
"It hit the rim, I wasn't supposed to do that," the senior forward joked to reporters about his St. John's teammate's tip-slam in the waning minutes of last night's 68-55 win over St. Bernard's. Up 59-49 wit three minutes left, the 6-foot-2 Kelley broke free in transition and tossed up a lay-in that kissed the glass -- and the rim -- before 6-foot-4 senior Richard Rodgers easily slammed it home one-handed, effectively putting the game away.
That would have been his eighth assist in an otherwise superb night for the 6-foot-2 Kelley, who bailed out the Pioneers (14-3) in the fourth quarter after the Bernardians (14-4) stormed back into the game with a third quarter rally that cut the lead to one. Working against a 2-3 zone, Kelley repeatedly stepped out into the wing and delivered a swift entry pass to 6-foot-6 junior Matt Palecki (17 points), who tipped it home.
Kelley was deferential after the game, particularly to Palecki -- "We've been playing together for three years, before school, after school," he noted. Palecki was nearly perfect from the field (8 of 10) as the Pioneers spoiled a festive night at the St. Bernard's Activity Center, which included a round of "Senior Night" photo-ops and a halftime ceremony honoring the recent nomination of senior John Henault (26 points, six rebounds) for the McDonald's All-American Game.
The chemistry between Kelley and Palecki is evident as the Pioneers get geared up for another Division 1 state tournament run.
"To get ready for St. Bernard's, we practiced against the 2-3 every day," Kelley said. "Every cut was made more than a couple of times, so I know where he knows to go, I know where he's going to be open, and I just throw it there. He gets there, and you know, it worked out tonight."
Said head coach Bob Foley, "Ryan Kelley, he was the key during that period of time. They were all obviously trying to play Richard Rodgers (13 points) and Kelley made some big plays, and Matt Palecki comes to the right spot and he got open and made the big plays. These are the games you wait for, you know are going to happen, and boy I'd like to see St. Bernard's go a long way."
Down 35-23 at the half, the Bernardians outscored St. John's 19-8 in the third quarter to cut the lead to 43-42, taking two brief leads along the way. Keying the run was the perimeter presence of Henault and Andrew Pierce (nine points, three 3-pointers). St. B's went 5 of 6 from long distance, and took a 40-39 lead with Henault's third trey of the game with 1:13 left in the quarter.
"We're slower than most teams, especially tonight, so we're a very perimeter-oriented team," St. B's head coach Mark Pierce said. "And we run a lot of stuff to try to get open looks, and our first half they did a pretty good job getting out on our shooters, challenging everything. I thought the third quarter especially, we did a better job setting screens, creating enough space so we can get shots off."
But from therein, the Pioneers' size advantage reclaimed momentum. With nobody to match up with St. John's frontcourt, the Bernardians' 2-3 zone struggled to slow Palecki and Rodgers at the blocks. And when they managed to size up, they left sophomore Ken Harrington (12 points, 4 for 6 on three-pointers) open on the wing; he nailed two treys in the fourth to help stave off the surge.
In all, both teams shot over 47 percent from three-point range, including a 7 for 14 night for St. John's. But there's a reason the Pioneers haven't lost to an in-state opponent since last year's Division 1 state championship, and it showed once again around the rim.
"It's not for lack of effort. I told the guys, fourth quarter they're going to go back to their bread and butter," Pierce said. "Three-four passes, reverse the ball, into the post, and sure enough...they do it very well. We stopped it half the night, and the other half we didn't, fourth quarter especially. (Palecki) got some great shots, you just catch the ball from three feet in and he's got it sealed off, it's tough."