Puello rises to challenge with a chip

ANDOVER, Mass. -- Among all the sub-plots and side stories headed into the latest installment of this intense cross-river rivalry at Andover High, the most intriguing one might have been the one-on-one matchup between Andover's Joe Bramanti and Central Catholic's Luis Puello, widely considered two of the state's premier perimeter defenders.

No disrespect to the talented Bramanti, but Puello never looked at it that way. Never has, never will. Never puts these things on a pedestal.

"I don't really prepare for it, man. I just play defense," Puello smiled in his trademark bluntness. "I just play hard, I just play him straight up. I didn't really think about it too hard, except to just challenge every shot and contest him. That's about it."

So did he take this as a personal challenge?

"Of course, I take every challenge as a personal challenge," Puello said, quick to interrupt the reporter's follow-up question. "That's how I am. I'm competitive, whoever challenges right in front of me I'm going to try and beat him. That's about it.

"I don't care, I legit...I don't even take it as a role. I just do it. If you're the best player on the court, I'm guarding you. If you want to guard me, that's fine. But I won't let you score on me. If you're better than me, I'm going to work harder than you."

Suffice it to say the 6-foot junior made his mark in the Raiders' 59-56 win over Andover. He might be remembered most from this game for his beautiful dish to Jaycob Morales to set up the buzzer-beating three-pointer that silenced the raucous Golden Warrior crowd, but where he did most of his damage was in the six inches in front of Bramanti's face.

With his blank, focused stare, Puello picked up the ballcarrier Bramanti as soon as he took the inbounds pass, digging his chest into his opponent's upper torso; keeping his shoulders square; keeping his arms active; driving his hips; and keeping his hips open, shuffling with his man step for step wherever the 6-foot-3 swingman tried to go on the court.

Bramanti got his, finishing with a game-high 22 points. But Puello had clearly done his damage, dogging Bramanti into a 6 for 20 night from the field. Andover head coach Dave Fazio admitted Bramanti might have been a little worn out by the fourth quarter, after the Warriors stormed back with a 22-4 run.

"Yeah totally, and he’s a freaking warrior," Fazio said. "He’s got to cover, rebound, yeah totally, fatigue’s definitely a problem. I’ve got to do a better job of resting him. But the problem is, when the hell do you rest him? It’s hard. So we try to use timeouts to get him some water, but this is the horse we’ve got. And we’ve got to ride him, you know."

On the other side, Puello's own teammates found themselves praising Puello's defense -- yet again.

"He is the best on-ball defender in the state," Central head coach Rick Nault said. "I’ve said that for two years now. It’s just remarkable, his athleticism, his quickness, and Joe’s a tremendous player – he might have gotten 30 tonight, I don’t know. But he worked for every single point he got. Luis wants that assignment. He takes that as a personal challenge."

Said Morales, "I mean, I’ll be the first one to tell you, he’s the best defensive guard in the state. I may be in the minority, but I haven’t seen a guard who can defend like him. He gets into people, he makes people become a whole different person when he’s defending them."

He might know better than anybody else at the school, having first befriended Puello years ago during pickup games at the Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence. That rivalry continues every day in practice -- one getting the better of the other one day, vice-versa the next -- and the chemistry is evident on the court.

But when it comes to that lateral quickness Puello uses to stay on his defenders, Nault says that's all on him.

"To be honest, there hasn’t been any development on our part –- it’s God-given," Nault said. "You know, we’ve spent a lot of time in practice, on him playing the ball. But in terms of teaching him how to defend, he’s learned that all on his own. He really has."

Puello says he "just want(s) another ring -- that what it's all about", alluding to a potential repeat as Division 1 state champions. While he's waiting, there will be ample opportunity the next seven days for a tune-up -- if not in his own battles with Morales, then in the ones looming from two teams ranked in the top 10 by ESPNBoston's state-wide MIAA poll.

The Raiders first look forward to this weekend's IAABO Board 130 Tournament on their home court, where a potential Monday final with No. 7 Lynn English looms. Should that pan out, one should expect Puello to badger the Bulldogs' Travonne Berry-Rogers, one of the North Shore's most physical playmakers. Then Wednesday night, in Danvers, it's a showdown with St. John's Prep and its Notre Dame-bound leader, ESPNU 100 shooting guard Pat Connaughton.

Asked if he expects to cover the 6-foot-4 Connaughton, Puello exclaimed, "Of course. I don't care if he's 6-7, you know what I mean, I'll play him all night. We'll see what happens."

Surely, he'll keep his feet active, and engage him in one of those trademark stare-downs, the ones with that Zen-like focus.

The trick to Zen, of course, is not thinking.