ANDOVER, Mass. -- After his team’s victory over North Andover last Friday night clinched the Merrimack Valley Conference Large title, Andover coach Dave Fazio said his players had the last few games of the season to determine if they were going to share it with anybody else.
With Friday’s 62-55 victory over Central Catholic, the No. 17 Golden Warriors decided the title was all theirs. As the game clock struck zero, students rushed the court to celebrate the school’s first outright league title since 2006.
“The programs have just battled,” said Fazio. “We’ve battled night in and night out for the 26 years that I’ve been at Andover. There’s a lot of lows when you play them. They’re responsible for a lot of season-ending games. When you beat a team like that, with a coach like they have, and the tenacity that they play with, anytime you beat them it’s a great feeling.”
It played out the way most Andover-Central Catholic games play out: tightly contested until one sudden momentum swing allows one team to pull head. The two teams were neck-and-neck until midway through the second quarter. Central went on an 11-3 run to go into the half ahead by 7.
Central did a commendable job on Andover’s Connor Merinder in the first half, holding the senior to 7 points. Coming out of the break, he asserted himself in the post almost immediately. The guards fed him the ball and he was able to combine his physicality with a series of moves to get close looks at the basket or open baseline jumpers for points. He was a big catalyst in his team’s 12-4 run in the first four minutes of the third that gave the team the lead back. He ended the game with 16 points, 4 rebound, and 4 blocks.
“The biggest thing we had to work on this game was to share the ball more,” said Merinder. “It’s almost like we came out and shared the ball a little too much. So at halftime we said you know, it’s okay to be selfish and take those shots, so we had to have somebody step up. I wanted to fill that roll and I tried to step up.”
Perhaps the quietest performance of the game belonged to Andover sophomore EJ Perry. He had 18 points and 7 rebounds, including a perfect 10-of-10 from the free throw line, but he continually drew the scorn of Fazio for his 5 turnovers and 3 fouls. On a night where the game was never out of reach and each point mattered immensely, it says a lot about the player and the team that they were able to battle through rough patches to still walk out of the gymnasium victorious, especially with the state tournament approaching.
J-Rod making his mark: In the last two games, Andover’s Jonathan Rodriguez has emerged as a strong shooting threat for the team’s offense. He scored 19 points Friday night, with 15 of those coming from beyond three-point line. At 6-foot-3, the junior represents an intriguing mismatch for opposing defenses. His height is that of a post player, especially at the high school level, but he is willing and able to knock down jump shots when he has to.
When he is on the floor with Connor Merinder, they present a tough outside-in option. If the defense chooses to step out and challenge Rodriguez’s shot, that leaves Merinder one-on-one in the post. Conversely, if the ball is dumped into the post, the defense can collapse on Merinder, but that leaves Rodriguez open in the corner for three.
“At halftime Faze took him aside and said ‘Man, just be confident and take your shot. No matter what you’re going to make it,’ and that’s what he did," said Merinder.
After going through rough patches on and off the court earlier in the season, Rodriguez is hitting a stride just at the right time. He be an intriguing third or fourth option for Andover as it looks to make a deep run in the upcoming state tournament.
“He had a death in the family midway through and had to leave and go back to the Dominican Republic, then he was sick and missed two games, so we have not had the flow that we want to have,” said Fazio. “Obviously family is the most important thing, but it’s hard to get that flow and hard to get that rotation. He’s another kid you talk about in terms of growth and development.”
Rodriguez made his biggest impact in the fourth quarter. Midway through the frame, he beat his man off the dribble for an easy two, then drained a corner three on the next Andover possession to bring the lead up to 7 points. Two minutes later, Central had cut the lead back down to four. It put on a full-court press to try and pressure Andover’s guards into turnovers. The Golden Warriors broke the press and pushed the ball up the floor quickly. Rodriguez again drained a three from the right corner off a successful drive-and-dish. The lead was back to 7 points and his team went on to victory.
Take it from Tanahj: During a timeout with three minutes to go in the game and his team up by four, Fazio made the decision that win or lose, Tanahj Pettway was not going to beat them. The freshman guard had 24 points in the game. His production came from multiple spots on the floor, including behind the three-point line, on drives to the hoop, and at the free throw line.
To keep the ball out of his hands, Fazio instructed his players to faceguard Pettway and deny the ball entirely. Defenders played with their back to the play and focused entirely on Pettway’s movements. The last three minutes turned into a four-on-four game.
“He’s just fearless. He reminds me of (David) Giribaldi in a lot of ways,” said Fazio. “He’s a volume scorer. He shoots with so much confidence. It’s like anything else, those are the guys you don’t want to beat you. Tyler Nelson beat us last year, I still can’t get over it, how we could let him beat us. I don’t care if he’s 75 feet away from the basket, that kid can’t beat you. The best players on the other team, you can’t let those guys get you. So games like tonight, when he’s got it going, I just don’t want him to touch the ball. So the last three minutes we just faced him with no help.”
The strategy worked. Aside from a tip-in before the buzzer, Andover held Central to two points in the final three minutes of the game. With the playoffs mere games away, this will not be the final time opponents try to eliminate Central’s young but prolific guard. In order for the Raiders to make noise in the postseason, it will need its other guards to step up and produce in crucial moments.
“I think we have a lot of guys, especially at the guard position, that can score,” said Central Catholic coach Rick Nault. “We didn’t do it tonight, but if you looked at our scoring this year, one night AJ Pettway (4 points) will get 20, the next night Alex Santos (5 points) will get 15, George Grillakis (6 points, 5 rebounds) will get 16. So we have a lot of guys that can score. I think we’re a very, very balanced team. We just didn’t have another guy step up tonight.”