Top-ranked St. John's Prep (22-1) dashed No. 2 Central Catholic's (21-3) hopes of repeating as state championships with a 63-60 win at Lawrence last night in the North sectional semi-final.
The win was the perfect ending to Prep coach Sean Connolly's 31st birthday.
But the coach's day nearly turned sour as he watched his team let a 54-43 lead heading into the fourth quarter almost slip away.
"We got a little tentative," Connolly said. "I think guys were playing back on their heels, but that's what Central does to you. They keep attacking and they're tough. Thankfully, we stemmed the tide and got it back in our favor and hung on at the end."
Central Catholic senior Jimmy Zenevitch, who led all scorers with 33 points, added eight in the final frame to help the Raiders otuscore the Eagles 17-9.
Central's junior guard Luis Puello, who finished with 11 points, scored with 1:23 left to pull his team within two, trailing 61-59.
On the ensuing possession, Prep junior Freddy Shove grabbed the rebound on a miss by senior Pat Connaughton and scored to give his team a 63-59 lead.
Shove, who finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds, was fouled and missed the free throw, but the and-one basket gave his team a two-possession lead.
“I just didn’t want to lose,” Shove said. “I wanted to make sure we got the ball every time we had a chance to.”
Zenevitch added a free throw on the next play to pull his team within three, and a potential costly turnover by Connaughton on the next drive left the Raiders with a chance to tie with 16 seconds left.
But Central Catholic struggled to get an open look and Zenevitch launched a contested 3-pointer that rimmed out as time expired.
"[The play] broke down," Central Catholic coach Rick Nault said. "We wanted Luis to go off a high screen and Tyler [Nelson] to come off a double. Jimmy was the last option to pop up and he's hit a lot of three's for us this year, so it was a look I was okay with."
St. John's Prep senior captain Pat Connaughton struggled from the field and scored 14 points, while going 0-6 from the 3-point line. But where Connaughton lacked on offense, he made up for under the glass and grabbed 19 rebounds.
"It wasn't the prettiest [win]," Connaughton said. "But we had [our team] make plays down the stretch and that's all that mattered. We knew [Central Catholic] was going to come out with a counter punch. I didn't play my best down the stretch, but we made enough plays to win."
And while Connaughton struggled to score, Shove, and junior guard Steve Haladyna, who led the team with 24 points, helped carry the load.
"Hal steps up in big games, I don't have to worry about him," Connaughton said. "I don't really have to worry about any of my team. I know they're going to give 110 percent when we compete. Freddy plays the hardest of anyone on our team, and his hard work gets us the win."
The last time these two teams squared off, Haladyna scored just four points in the Prep's 72-70 win Feb. 23 and Connolly pointed out his mistakes to him on film.
"Hal didn't have a very good game against them last time and we showed it to him," Connolly said. "I expected him to come out, he usually doesn't come out two games in a row playing bad so I figured he'd have a good game."
Haladyna said watching the film motivated him for last night's game.
"[Connolly] was on me real bad after that game," Haladyna said. "He gets on us and that's what you need out of a head coach and that's what got me going for this game."
Haladyna scored 13 points in the first half and Shove dropped nine in the second quarter to build on a 21-19 first quarter lead and help the Prep to a 39-31 halftime lead.
The dynamic duo helped spark a 12-0 run to open the second quarter which gave the Eagles a 33-19 lead – their biggest of the game.
But Central responded with an 11-6 run to cut the lead to eight going into the break.
Connaughton and Haladyna helped maintain the lead in the third quarter, and the Notre Dame-bound senior added a 10-foot jumper as time expired to give the Eagles an 11-point 54-43 lead going into the final eight minutes before Central Catholic stormed the court.
But when the final buzzer sounded, the Prep's deep lineup proved too much for Central Catholic.
"They're the best team in the state," Nault said. "They're so well coached, and it's not all about Pat [Connaughton]. Haladyna's a sensational player that took it to us tonight, and Shove had a tremendous night and attacked Jimmy [Zenevitch] at will. They have all the right pieces and they do all the little things well. They won the hustle battle and that was the difference tonight."
With the win, the Prep will continue its quest for a state title when they face either Lawrence or Lynn English Friday at TD Garden in the North final.
"We're in for a battle [Friday]," Connolly said. "Every game is going to be a battle, both teams are very good. Both are talented with good guards and are athletic, so we just have to prepare for that."
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