LAWRENCE, Mass. -- Paul Neal slouched on a bench outside the Lawrence High gymnasium, the Lancers head coach exhaling deeply after a hard-fought Division 1 North First Round battle with St. John's Prep that took on a frenetic pace. Then his wide-eyed, unsung sophomore walked by, and Neal extended his left hand for a low-five.
"Great charge, brother," Neal said softly, but with authority. "That sealed the game."
Anyone who's watched Lawrence this year is familiar with the Lancers' affinity for the run-and-gun, and against set plays. So it shouldn't come as a whole heck of a surprise that the kid driving the stake into this 80-69 win over Prep was 6-foot-4 sophomore forward Roberto Speing's crunch-time work on the glass.
Speing had four defensive boards in the fourth quarter, all of them coming in the final two minutes as the Eagles (13-8) tried to rally with a number of attempts from deep. The icing on the cake, though, was taking his third charge of the game with 1:01 left and the Lancers (15-5) leading 75-65, sliding in front of Prep's Tyler Dooley as he crashed into the lane from his right.
"I had to take it," Speing laughed. "Coach Raymond [assistant Raymond Nunez] told me I had to take three charges today, and that's what I did. That was my third one."
Neal recalled a late-night conversation with Speing earlier this season, urging him to continue working hard on the glass -- continue to "dominate the last four or five minutes with rebounding," as he put it -- in spite of the lack of attention from the public. Eventually, Neal told him, people will take notice.
Tonight might have been an eye-opener for some. On the big stage, in front of an enthusiastic capacity home crowd, Speing finished with 10 rebounds -- six in the final frame.
"I think he's finally starting to understand that," Neal said. "He's starting to get recognized. I said, 'Listen, you're the Dennis Rodman of this team. You're the guy that can put a stop on people, and seal the defense'. Tonight, I think he was the man. He rebounded when we needed rebounds."
On the offensive end, meanwhile, it was senior guard Yadoris Arias (31 points, seven rebounds) leading the way with an explosive outburst, which included a 4-of-7 effort from three-point range.
But his most crucial possession was a heady one late in the game. Charging upcourt on a fast break off a long rebound, Arias drifted to the left corner, took a kick-out pass, hesitated for a moment and then pump-faked his defender. Arias drove baseline, took a foul on his way up to a reverse layup, and hit the free throw to complete a three-point play and go up 75-65 with 1:25 left.
"It gave us a lot of momentum, it felt great," Arias said. "Bunch of young guys on the court, they're hyped, they're bringing me up. So it's just a good play."
Stumbling, he continued, "I dunno, it just feels good right now, man. I'm speechless right now. It feels good."
Seniors Franklin Martinez (nine rebounds) and Leonny Burgos both added 14 points, and senior Tre'Von Farley 11, in the winning effort for Lawrence. Prep senior Steve Haladyna finished his stellar career on a good note, finishing with 21 points and 12 rebounds.
Need for Speed: Lawrence pushed up the tempo significantly in the second quarter, leading to an 11-2 run to open, and overall it yielded some pretty favorable results. Defenders up top began strafing upcourt as soon as Prep shot went up, leading to long outlet passes. After baskets, the ballcarrier either took a long outlet on the run or brought the ball over halfcourt quickly.
That led to a number of good looks from the perimeter. Lawrence was 5-for-5 from three-point range for the quarter, three of them coming from Arias. But when Neal motioned for the troops to slow it down a bit with under three to go in the first half, the Eagles quickly mounted themselves right back into the game. Haladyna took an entry pass from freshman Marcos Echevarria and kissed a hook shot off the glass; that was followed by a tip-in and backdoor layup from Owen Marchetti.
Prep cut the lead to 41-37 at the half, but Lawrence turned up the speed again in the second half, leading 61-54 after three and never relinquishing control.
"We're not an offensive set team," Neal said. "We've got athletes, and we want to make guys keep up with us. I think execution-wise, [in the] halfcourt St. John's Prep is a much better team -- and most teams we're going to play, you know what I mean? But if we can get guys that we know can run and jump and get the game up and down, I think it favors us."
Playin' Like Jaylen: Folks around Lawrence are still talking about the Lancers' run to last year's Division 1 North final at TD Garden, after entering the tournament a No. 15 seed. Fueling that run was Jaylen Alicea, who played his way into an ESPN Boston All-State nod after averaging 30 points in five tournament games.
Arias considers Alicea a close friend, and displays many of the same characteristics -- same haircut, same chin-strap beard that's long in the chin area, similar-looking tattoos. Arias wore No. 12 last season, but has switched to Alicea's number.
"He was like a brother to me," Arias said. "When we were younger, he always had 12 and I always had 15. He left last year...so I just wanted to keep the number going and represent it well."
With 31 points tonight, Arias is off to a good start in following the momentum Alicea built in last year's tournament.
"He's playing on a mission, because I think he was in the shadows of Jaylen for years," Neal said. "They're different kinds of players, but some things are similar and they're good buddies. So I think it's his time to show he can play without those guys and still accomplish stuff as a team. There's some drive in him from that era, too."
Up Next: The No. 7 seed Lancers await the winner of Thursday night's contest between No. 2 Acton-Boxborough and No. 15 Methuen, with the game likely to be played over the weekend. A-B is the heavy favorite, but Neal said for preparation purposes "I spend a lot of time focusing on us, and then do a few simple changes."
"We want to run, and everybody knows that," Neal said. "And if you can stop that, well, good luck. We're going to try to come at you, no matter who we're playing."