LHS Drops Heavyweight Clash
LAWRENCE -- Shoulder to shoulder, close to 3,000 fans packed the gym at Lawrence High School on Wednesday night.
Central 67 Lowell 61
It was loud with a palpable energy and anticipation. And that was the scene when Lowell High and Central Catholic were in pregame layup lines. Once the opening jump was tipped, the atmosphere somehow ramped up to an even more intense level. It was widely expected that these traditional Merrimack Valley Conference rivals would deliver a state tournament classic.
They didn’t disappoint.
In a game where momentum swings were seemingly as frequent as the bouncing of the ball, and incredible individual shot-making was the norm, third-seeded Central came away with a 67-61 victory over No. 2 Lowell in a Division 1 North semifinal.
The Raiders (21-3), who had four players in double-figure scoring led by junior forward George Smith’s 22, advanced to Saturday’s Division 1 North final against top-seeded Lynn English at the Tsongas Center (7:45 p.m.).
“We knew they were going to come at us. We don’t like them, they don’t like us,” said Central senior guard Kevin Constant, who had 18 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks. “We knew it was going to be a big one, right away, especially with Lowell.”
Central led for the entire fourth quarter, but it was never remotely comfortable.
“It was just a game of runs,” said Central head coach John Walsh, whose team won two of the three games against Lowell this season. “I thought we made some clutch shots at the time. That game could’ve gone either way and we had a last run.”
Lowell junior guard Carlos Nunez, who finished with a team-high 22 points to go with five rebounds, buried his fifth 3-pointer of the game with 12 seconds remaining to make it 62-60. But Smith calmly made a pair of free throws on the other end to put Central back up by four (64-60). Lowell senior Rashawn Settles (10 points) was fortunate to draw a foul on the next possession with nine seconds left, but he only made one. Central’s Jalen Aquino made a free throw on the other end and then after a Central stop, Smith made two more freebies to put the game on ice.
Aquino, a senior, had a monster second half after going scoreless in the first two quarters. He finished with 15 points and connected on a deep triple to put CC ahead 42-40 with 3:42 left in the third. The Raiders closed the frame on a 13-2 run to take a 53-42 advantage into the final quarter.
“They made their free throws down the stretch, and that was huge,” said Lowell head coach Bob Michalczyk when asked what ultimately prevented his team from coming all the way back. “They were pretty stagnant on offense, we were doing a good job, and then (Aquino) made two or three daggers. The kid is a good shooter.”
The Red Raiders finished their season at 21-4. They lost in the sectional semifinals for the third straight year.
“It’s one of those things where we’ve been very successful and we’re grateful, but we can’t just keep getting to this point, we’ve got to improve on it,” said Michalczyk. “There’s no shame in losing to a good team, a very good team. Tonight they just made a couple more plays than we did. That’s really all it was, we didn’t play bad.”
Few teams that play Lowell can match the Red Raiders’ athleticism and quickness. Central can. The 6-foot-1 Constant was the best example of that, as his all-around play and production played a major role in the Raiders’ win. Constant had 11 points in the first half to help his team take a narrow 30-29 lead into the locker room.
On the other side, Nunez was immense. The sweet-shooting lefty had 11 in the first quarter and 14 in the first half. In the second half, he got help from senior forward Justin Villanueva, who had 13 points and five rebounds in his final game.
Nunez converted a tough baseline drive to get Lowell within two (57-55) with 2:20 remaining. But Constant had the answer in the form of a cold-blooded pull-up 3-pointer from the top of key to put Central up 60-55 with two minutes left. Perimeter shooting isn’t a major part of Constant’s game, but he looked comfortable taking that big shot.
“They were sagging off me a little bit, so I just let it fly with confidence and hit it,” Constant said. “The MVC is the best league in the state. Obviously, it prepares us for this.”
Still, Walsh can’t help but be a bit surprised with what his team has accomplished.
“I loved our team, I thought we were going to be good. But, to be honest, I didn’t know what to think. We didn’t have a lot coming back,” said Walsh. “It’s not a credit to me, it’s a credit to the kids getting better and better every single game.”
Follow Matt Langone on Twitter @MattLangone