WORCESTER, Mass. -– Much of what followed halftime smelled like fiction, yet it was all true.
Almost two hours after Central entered the halftime locker room in the DCU Center with a 27-20 deficit, Central coach Mike Labrie walked out of the same locker room with an undone tie, disheveled hair and water still dripping from his face.
A split second later, the Massachusetts Division 1 state champion Golden Eagles followed him out the door.
The Golden Eagles came back from a seven-point halftime deficit to blindside Brockton 67-46. After trailing 35-34 with four minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Golden Eagles scored 30 of the game’s next 38 points en route to outscoring Brockton 47-19 in the second half.
The final two quarters displayed everything Labrie has come to expect from his troops –- swarming defense led to offense, offense led to momentum, and momentum led to the theft of another opponent’s heart. But at halftime, with defeat hanging in front of Central’s face, Labrie needed to remind his team of its capabilities.
“We’re going to have a spurt,” he told his players. “We’ve never played a game without a spurt. We just have to ride the spurt.”
And ride it they did, like a wave that never ended, straight into Central history alongside ex-NBA player Travis Best. It was Best who led the school to its last state title in 1991.
This time, it was a junior reserve named Cornelius Tyson, who came off the bench to score 16 points, all in the second half. Tyson’s first bucket, a three, gave Central its first lead of the second half at 32-31. He followed with a no-look assist to Kevin Johnson on Central’s next possession, and added another triple before the end of the third quarter to give Central a 39-35 lead.
“The basket just started looking bigger,” he said.
And it wouldn’t stop growing. Tyson drove to the hoop and finished with his left hand to extend Central’s advantage to 46-39 early in the fourth quarter, sank a fade-away jumper off one foot to push the score to 50-39 a minute later, and then drilled two consecutive long bombs two minutes after that as Central’s lead ballooned to 62-42.
Said Central star Tyrell Springer, who scored 14 points, “He amazed me, man. It was so shocking. Not shocking maybe –- I knew he could do it. It was just a matter of him showing it. And he did. I’m so proud of him. Everybody here’s so proud of him.”
Brockton barely mentioned Tyson on the team’s scouting report, but Houston tried to warn his teammates.
“I played AAU basketball with Cornelius, so I know he’s a great shooter," Houston said. "I tried to tell my teammates to watch out for him."
But his urgings fell on deaf ears.
And why wouldn’t they? Tyson’s season high entering Saturday night’s finals was seven points. He averaged fewer than four points per game. The guard spent most of his 2012 season attempting to nudge his way into Central’s crowded rotation and hardly played any minutes against St. John’s in the state semifinals.
There were no warning signs that he would become a hero during the school’s biggest win in more than 20 years.
“Throughout the whole season, everybody was doubting him, saying he’s not that good, that he hasn’t been living up to his name,” said junior forward Kamari Robinson (12 points, eight rebounds), referring to a reputation Tyson built during the AAU and summer circuits. “He came out here today and balled. When the lights are on, it’s time to perform. And I really appreciate what he did today. That was a grown man performance right there.”
Labrie walked out of the locker room after the game, a state champion for the first time, and said he was shocked his players could still surprise him after so many years in coaching. He was referring to the water dousing that left him such a mess walking to the bus –- one player distracted him with a hug while the rest poured a bucket of water on Labrie’s head -– but he also could have been speaking about the Golden Eagles' play:
Central finished a 24-1 season undefeated in the state of Massachusetts, and saved its greatest trick for last.
Going Small Provides Big Returns: Without injured starting center Jevaughn McMillian, one of Western Mass.’s finest shot blockers, the Golden Eagles feared they would struggle to match up with Houston.
The first half did nothing to prove their fears wrong, as the 6-foot-6 Houston dominated the interior with nine points and 10 rebounds. But when Trevor Bacon, McMillian’s replacement in the starting lineup, got into foul trouble early in the second half, Central tried a new strategy -- a small lineup.
Though he would still finish with 17 rebounds, Houston failed to score a single point after halftime. Robinson and Kevin Johnson took turns as Houston’s primary defender. Both performed admirably in the role, and they had plenty of help.
“It seemed like I got triple-teamed every time I got the ball," Houston explained. "They were harassing me as soon as I touched it. I tried to find my teammates but nobody was getting open, so I tried to attack. It didn’t work."
“What happened with our speed on defense is that they were rushing their shots. We were closing out on them a lot better with the small guys. I was just really concerned about losing the board battle with that lineup, but they just gutted it out,” Labrie said.
Central often uses Springer as a free safety, and he created havoc when Houston caught the ball in the post. On one possession, he sneaked behind Houston and poked the ball away. On another, he dug down on Houston and swiped the ball off the big man’s leg.
“Springer was crucial in the post," Labrie noted. "They don’t have many weak guys, but we try to put him on their weakest guy so he can roam and help in the paint, and he did a terrific job."
Central’s small lineup seemed to overwhelm Brockton athletically, and the Boxers scored just 19 points after halftime. Thirteen of those belonged to Jamal Reuben, who finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds. Reuben repeatedly slashed to the hoop for good looks, but his teammates had less success.
“Our offense wasn’t flowing,” Reuben said, “and we weren’t running the plays the way they were designed. They came out energized and that’s what we needed to do.”
As usual, Central’s defense fed its offense. The more stops the Golden Eagles achieved, the more efficiently they scored.
"Once we locked up the big man, everything open up," explained Springer.
West Is (At Long Last) Best: Central’s title represented the first time a Western Mass. school won the Division 1 boys basketball state championship since 2004, when Commerce accomplished the feat.
During the entire state tournament, the Golden Eagles felt like they were playing for more than themselves.
Said Labrie, “We’re representing Western Mass. We’re representing the Valley League. We’re representing Central High School. We’re representing the students. It means a real lot. I think it’s been eight years since Western Mass. won it, and it just shows everyone that Springfield is back on the map.”
“I’m just happy I’m a part of it,” Robinson added. “We have some freshman and sophomores on the team, and even they were so hyped about it. They have more years to go, but some of them were still shedding tears.”
Lee Turner, who scored eight points, didn’t know how to react.
“As soon as that two minutes came and we were up 20, I shed tears,” he said. “I was laughing, I was crying, it was crazy.”