LAWRENCE, Mass. -- Jimmy Zenevitch knew Central Catholic was going to get Lawrence’s best game Friday.
“Lawrence, their main goal of the year is to beat us,” he said. “This was their state championship pretty much. We have another one when they come to Central (on Feb. 4).”
Neither a zone defense nor consistent double-teams could stop the Assumption-bound senior, who ended the game with 20 points -- including five-of-six from the free throw line -- and 15 rebounds in the 75-62 victory.
“I think it’s no secret that he’s our best player,” said Central coach Rick Nault. “Team’s focus on him so much that he gets teams’ best every night. He’s a warrior every night, and we’re going to go as he goes. If he’s on, he’s playing well, he’s getting rebounds, he’s doing a lot of the little things, we’re going to be alright. If he’s not, then we’re going to struggle because he’s our leader.”
The Raiders (9-1) went on a 7-0 run to open the game and had a comfortable lead going into the second ahead 24-14. In the second, Lawrence (6-4) was able to push the ball up the floor more effectively with the likes of Jaylen Alicea and Yadoris Arias and forced Central’s big men to run. Lawrence outscored Central 26-18, making it a two-point deficit at the half.
Coming out of the half, Lawrence’s newfound zone defense seemed to flummox Central and keep the game within reach. With the intention being to stop Zenevitch and others from easy access to the basket, Central was settled on shooting from the perimeter for a majority of the third quarter, albeit mostly unsuccessfully.
“They surprised us a little with the zone, I don’t think we’ve seen Lawrence High play zone in 15 years,” said Nault.
The two teams traded metaphorical punches all the way through the third and into the fourth, where it was 55-52 in Central’s favor with seven minutes to go. With the raucous crowd behind the home team, the Lawrence players seemed to channel an energy they were lacking for part of the first half, while Central seemed to be going in the opposite direction, with turnovers and mental errors for much of the third quarter.
Suddenly, Central seemed to solve the zone, went on an 8-2 run in the next minute and a half, and put the game away for good.
“When they went to the zone defense, we were just doing two shots, three-ball, two shots, jump shot, we weren’t really moving the ball,” said Zenevitch. “When we had seven or eight passes, we ended up getting lay-ups.”
Also noticeable in the waning minutes of the game was the disparity in successful free throws. When minutes to go in the fourth and the score still manageable, Lawrence could not seem to convert free throws, while Central was making theirs with ease. By converting them, Central opened up a double-digit lead with a minute and a half remaining, putting Lawrence in foul-mode instead of working on getting quick baskets.
“Not making free throws came back to haunt is in the Andover game in the Christmas tournament (a 55-52 loss, their only of the season),” said Central guard Luis Puello, who had 22 points of his own, while going five-of-seven from the line. “Coach told us in practice to focus on free throws because you don’t want it to happen again, so we went back to focusing on free throws. Practice makes perfect.”
As a team, Central was 16-of-22 from the line, while Lawrence was 9-of-19.
On the other bench, the loss was Lawrence’s third in its last four games, leaving some wondering how to solve a riddle of a team that is notoriously a powerhouse atop the Merrimack Valley Conference. Paul Neal, the Lancers coach, sees the talent in his team and knows its ability to score points is not the problem.
“We’re just not getting stops, especially in crucial moments,” he said. “We’re giving up runs and not stopping people. When you have a team like that that is very good defensively, you’re not going to beat them giving up almost 80 points. It’s just not going to happen.”
“I thought we played okay, but we have to get better defensively,” he added. “We’re trading baskets in critical moments and until we can (play better defensively) I don’t think we’re going to beat good teams. If there’s any sort of silver lining in this game it’s that I really believe we can get better.”