LAWRENCE, Mass. -– With sophomore forward Conner Merinder out with a wrist injury, it was on senior co-captain Sam Dowden to step up in the post and go up against North Andover’s star forwards Isaiah Nelsen and Chris Bardwell on Thursday night for the opening game of the 38th Annual Greater Lawrence Boys Basketball Christmas Tournament.
Merinder, also a goalkeeper on Andover’s soccer team, suffered an injury to his wrist towards the end of the soccer season and was forced to have surgery. So for the time being, it’s on Dowden to match up against each teams’ best post player.
The 6-foot-5 senior was more than up for the task, finishing with 21 points and 10 rebounds and helping rally the Golden Warriors over their border rivals to overtime, where they prevailed, 76-63.
"It's a big win, because we've been playing against them so long," Dowden said. "We've been playing against them since eighth grade."
In a back-and-forth battle with the Scarlet Knights, Andover made its charge late in the fourth quarter. Dowden cut the lead to 56-54 with a put-back, and completing the three-point play with a free throw following a foul. The next trip down, the Warriors' Max Silveira gave them the lead on another three-point play.
Brett Daley then hit a three-pointer with 12 seconds left to cut Andover's lead to 60-59. In the final few seconds, Bardwell went one of two from the charity stripe to tie it at 60 to end regulation.
The overtime session was no contest. Derek Collins’ frustrating shooting night continued, Nelsen looked exhausted from his second half performance, and Bardwell fouled out in the final few minutes to take away any chance the Knights had of coming back. The Warriors’ great shot selection continued into the overtime session, as the wide majority of Andover’s baskets coming in overtime were high-percentage lay ups at the rim.
Overall the Warriors outscored the Knights 16-3 in the bonus frame, capped with a drop-step from Dowden with a minute to go in the frame that gave Andover a 70-62 lead.
“Honestly, I’m proud of our kids," head coach Dave Fazio said. "We’re up 12 and came up and just played a vanilla third quarter. Then we had a fight, they hit a three and we went down five, but it’s like we tell our kids: we have choices, we can either hang our head or [move on to the] next play."
Dowden's duty against the Knights' bigs was no small saddle, but he more than held his own.
Guarding Nelsen, Dowden held the St. Anselm signee to seven first-half points on four shots. Offensively, he showed his whole arsenal of moves, hitting mid-range jumpers of the dribble, finish drop-step and up-and-under moves around the rim, and putting back offensive rebounds, ending the opening half as the game-high scorer with 12 points and his team ahead 29-17.
Also a constant threat on the glass, Dowden made sure to mention that he certainly didn’t do it alone.
“I had to do a good job rebounding tonight,” he said, “But we had two really tough guys in Greg Dreyfus and Ty Verrette. They really do a great job on the boards. They play way bigger than they are.”
It was practically inevitable that Nelsen was going to get his offensive groove going eventually, and he did just that in the third quarter -- finishing every loose offensive rebound in sight and constantly cutting and moving without the ball. In the third quarter alone, Nelsen stung the Warriors for 13 points and 7 rebounds, not missing a field goal or free throw during the entire eight minute stanza.
Dowden’s production was relatively light in the third quarter. After hurting the Knights offensively in the first half, North Andover started collapsing on Dowden every time he touched the ball -– forcing him to kick the ball back out to a guard.
“[The third quarter] was kind of frustrating,” Dowden said, “We like to come out in the third quarter and just jump on teams, and tonight we didn’t. They’re a great team, we knew they were gonna’ make a run at some time.”
Nelsen’s hot hand brought North Andover all the way back from their 12-point halftime defecit, giving the Knights a 37-35 after a big run. Collins hit a three pointer, Bardwell got a couple of isolation touches down low, and North Andover seemed to have the momentum full swing in their direction, especially after Nelsen scored two consecutive baskets on putbacks to increase the lead with just over four minutes to go. But thanks to a three-pointer by John Konevich, the Warriors jumped right back into the game after a big defensive stop on NA’s next possession.
The scary part for future opponents about No. 11 Andover’s upset over their conference foe, is that this is a team that isn’t even at full strength. With Merinder’s comeback lingering in the distance, Fazio couldn’t help but be hopeful damage that the sophomore star and Dowden will have once Merinder comes back.
“That would be a great Christmas present, and that changes everything for us,” he said, “We can put Conner on Nelson, and then we can relieve Sam a little bit. We’ve been asking a lot of Sam...Kid is a four year starter, a Warrior, I’m happy for him.”