Central Catholic’s Jamahl Lopez (14) chases Lowell’s Kareem Davis down the court to prevent the pass Wednesday. Below, Central Catholic’s #44 Doug Gemmell dives for a ball under pressure from Lowell’s Kevin Brito.
Central Catholic’s Jamahl Lopez (14) chases Lowell’s Kareem Davis down the court to prevent the pass Wednesday. Below, Central Catholic’s #44 Doug Gemmell dives for a ball under pressure from Lowell’s Kevin Brito.
Photos by Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe

In the rugged and highly competitive Merrimack Valley Conference, it’s easy to get overlooked.

The Central Catholic boys have held the reins seven years running and are always a front-runner to emerge from the conference for a deep tourney run. Andover is always in the conversation. Add new entrant North Andover to that mix, a challenging Division 2 contender that is very big up front. A veritable Big 3 in the MVC.

But what about Lowell?

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Lowell (13-3 MVC) finished a game back of Central (14-2) and North Andover (14-2), but the Red Raiders are not too disappointed.

Lowell, rather quietly, rang up 17 wins in the regular season, but No. 17, against Central, was a riveting performance. “They’re kind of that thorn in our side,” said Lowell coach Scott Boyle . “We’ve got to get through them to win something.”

The Red Raiders raced to an early 18-8 cushion Wednesday night against the visitors, punctuated by an emphatic dunk from 6-foot-7 senior Drew Healy.

The fourth quarter of the 63-41 win was capped off by several steals and fast break points from captain Jonathan Perez , who finished with 19 points, 5 steals, and 4 assists. As the sweat dried and fans stormed the court, Lowell had claimed a home playoff game and removed that thorn, at least for the time being.

So, for the under-the-radar Red Raiders, was this a statement game?

“Absolutely,” said a confident Perez. “We want to show that we can beat any team out there. Every team in the North is pretty even, but whoever works hard, that’s who wins the game.”

Quite a turnaround from their performance at Central on Jan. 18, a 70-49 loss.

For starters, Lowell altered its approach defensively.

The Red Raiders came out in a 2-3 zone that is often very foreign to Boyle’s teams.

But he wanted to clog the paint, closing up the lane for Central’s talented players in the post.

So, instead of his typical man-to-man scheme, he went with the zone. It worked — his team’s suffocating execution held Central to a season-low 41 points, just the fourth time this season Central was held under 60 points.

“I’ve always been a man guy, but I think we can play a pretty good zone,” said Boyle. “Sometimes you’ve got to take a step back and say ‘if that works, we’ll go with it.’ ”

While the change may not be permanent, there is no questioning Lowell’s effort and dedication in making it work.

“We tried zone a couple of times and it didn’t work,” noted Perez. “But we went at it hard in practice, like we do every day. The recipe for us doing it well was talking. It made the zone real tough.”

As a product of their dedication, Boyle’s team found something that had been buried since the beginning of the season.

“I don’t know if it was Senior Night, but I’ve seen confidence in our guys that I hadn’t seen in a long time,” Perez said following the win over Central.

“In the beginning of the year everyone was playing hard, nobody cared about the scoreboard — it didn’t matter. We just kept playing hard every play and winning. That was how we played today.”

Despite earning a high seed for the tourney and securing home court for early games, Lowell is not looking too far ahead.

When asked about the competition, Boyle noted his squad will have its work cut out for it, with teams like Lynn English, St. John’s Prep (“outstanding,” said Boyle), and the ever-relentless, and “proven” Central Catholic ready to battle.

Any sleeper emerging as a team to beat? “I hope it’s Lowell,” replied Boyle.

Boys’ teams to watch

 There will be no shortage of contenders in the North sectionals. Here are five other boys’ teams to watch:

1. St. John’s Prep: The Eagles were unranked at the start of the season. Now, Prep is one of the favorites for the Division 1 state crown, thanks in large part to the sharp shooting of 6-foot-3 sophomore guard Ben Judson.

2. Central Catholic: The Raiders stumbled a bit down the stretch, but they were minus their emotional leader, 6-foot-4 big man Doug Gemmell,  to a concussion. He has returned, but in his absence 6-6 junior Aaron Hall got more playing time.

3. Lynn English: After starting their season 4-4, the Bulldogs won 11 of their next 12 games, including wins over defending state champion Springfield Central and top-ranked St. John’s Prep. Watch out for the sophomore duo of Erick Rosario  and Steve Collins , who can both go off for 30 points in any given game.

4. Danvers: The one loss for Lynn English in its 11 of 12 stretch? Danvers. The Falcons started 18-0, before losing its final two games. But the Falcons have their leading scorer, Nick McKenna , back after he missed half the season with mononucleosis.

5. Melrose: The Red Raiders have beaten every challenger they’ve faced, running and gunning their way to a 20-0 regular season. Look out for senior forwards Frantzdy Pierrot  and Sam Jean-Gilles  in the paint, and sharp-shooting freshman Sherron Harris  in the Division 2 tourney.

Girls’ teams to watch

1. Reading: After the Rockets lost senior guard Morgan O’Brien  to a torn ACL just prior to the season, the hopes of a Division 2 repeat took a major hit. But senior Olivia Healy has simply taken command — no player in the state has been better the last two months than the University of Richmond recruit.

2. Masconomet: A sleeper in the Division 1 field, the 15-5 Chieftains have been on the rise the past month. They nearly took down defending Division 3 champ Pentucket (a 44-43 loss) as well as Lynn English (63-57 loss).

3. Billerica: Fueled by seniors Brittany Lomanno , Danielle Nickerson , and Kayla Leverone , the Indians are prepped for a deep run in Division 1.

4. Pentucket: The defending Division 3 state champs went 20-1 during the regular season behind the play of senior Nicole Viselli  and dynamic sophomore guard Kelsi McNamara.

5. Ipswich: The biggest threat to Pentucket’s success may be Cape Ann rival Ipswich (16-3). With poised sophomore point, Masey Zegarowski  controlling the pace and senior forwards Julia Davis  and Brigid O’Flynn  banging around in the paint, the Tigers are a threat.