Central Catholic junior guard Luis Puello is one of the most tenacious defenders in the state. Last night, he did his best to slow down St. John's Prep guard Pat Connaughton and held him to 23 points.
But in the end, Connaughton got the best of Puello when he drove to the lane, took a hop-step and scored the winning basket to lift top-ranked St. John's Prep past No. 2 Central Catholic, 72-70, at Memorial Gymnasium in Danvers.
"Puello plays tough D," Connaughton said. "He's always moving and it's really hard to get used to. He did a great job the entire game and I got the best of him at the last one, but he played the best I've ever seen anyone defend me all year."
Prep coach Sean Connolly said, "[Puello] has very quick feet, probably one of the best on-ball defenders I've ever seen in high school. You got to work to score on Puello. He does a good job denying you and he's physical."
After Connaughton scored the Prep's final basket, he displayed some defense of his own on the ensuing play. Central Catholic's Jimmy Zenevitch drove the lane and looked to tie the score, but Connaughton met him at the top of his release and stuffed the attempt.
Central Catholic regained possession after the block and coach Rick Nault called a timeout with 13.5 seconds left. The Raiders couldn't get anything going offensively, and Nault was forced to call another timeout with 3.5 seconds left.
On the inbounds pass, Prep sophomore forward Isaiah Robinson tipped the pass and junior Freddy Shove grabbed the loose ball to seal the win.
Robinson finished with 2 points, but had seven rebounds and knew he could leave his mark on the game with solid defense.
"Basically, I was just trying to deflect the pass and stop them there and get the win," he said. "I was trying to show that I could play in that type of situation and I proved it."
Shove was fouled with 0.7 seconds left and missed both free throws, but the clock expired once Zenevitch grabbed the rebound.
The teams were deadlocked, 55-55, heading into the final eight minutes, but Connaughton hit a quick putback off his own miss to break the tie. Zenevitch scored five straight points to give the Raiders a 60-57 lead, but Connaughton drained a 3-pointer to tie the score with 5:53 to play.
"The best thing about it was I didn't think about it," Connaughton said. "I came down and knew I had to do something and it just happened."
After a St. John's Prep timeout, the Eagles went on a 9-2 run to take a 69-62 lead.
But Zenevitch and Puello hit back-to-back baskets to make it 69-66 with 1:30 left. On the next play, junior Steve Haladyna drove to the hoop and Zenevitch blocked the shot.
However, Connolly felt it was goaltending and protested the call, resulting in a technical foul. Central Catholic freshman Tyler Nelson hit both free throws to make it a 1-point game, and Zenevitch scored to help Central take a 70-69 lead
Connaughton hit a free throw with a minute to play, then grabbed a rebound on a Zenevitch miss to set up the winning layup.
Zenevitch led all scorers with 32 points, however he shot 3 for 7 from the free throw line.
"They are an outstanding team, especially when you have a kid like Pat Connaughton who can make plays every trip down the floor," Nault said. "As a team, we shot 5 of 14 from the free throw line. That was our downfall tonight. It's going to cost us games if we can't knock them down."
In the third quarter, Prep junior Mike Carbone went for 11 points to keep the game close. The sharp-shooting guard finished with 21, and drained four 3-pointers.
"Mike had a very good game," Connolly said. "He's a tough kid and stepped up and made some big shots for us. He's been playing very well, and he did a great job defending [Jaycob] Morales and making him work."
It was the first time the teams squared off this season, but another meeting might be waiting late in the state tournament.
"Every time we play these guys, we know it's going to be a war," Connolly said. "They are a tough team mentally and physically. You got to battle if you want to beat these guys."
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