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Rau’s Big Game Lifts Notre Dame Over South Lancaster

February 3, 2019

LANCASTER -- With a young team, confidence in the early going is absolutely crucial. You hit a few shots in the first minute or so, the unit’s confidence can fill the barn. You don’t hit them, and, well, you know the rest.

The Notre Dame boys’ basketball team came out firing on all cylinders, confidence-wise, on Saturday night, then held off a late first-half charge by South Lancaster Academy before the South Streeters pulled away in the second half en route to an 82-63 win at the South Lancaster Gymnasium Saturday evening.

This Worcester County Athletic Conference victory was a critical one for the Crusaders, who improved to 8-9 overall. And while Notre Dame has four games remaining, the next one -- a trip to Brockton to face the Boxers this Thursday -- is exempt from the MIAA’s 50 percent rule.

That means Notre Dame needs to win two out of its last three after that: A home date against Monty Tech on Friday and a home date against North Brookfield on Tuesday, Feb. 12, before going to Rindge Road to take on Sizer on the Feb. 13.

Notre Dame is also in the mix for the league crown; the WCAC allows for its league champions and any second-place finishers to advance to the postseason.

Notre Dame head coach, and longtime headmaster, Jeff Hammond was incredibly pleased with his team’s performance, which saw three Crusaders score in double-figures.

“We moved the ball much better tonight,” he said. “Sometimes the offense clicks, and sometimes the offense stagnates. Tonight, the passing and the positioning and the ball movement was really good.

“Tonight, we were lively. Sometimes, we’re not as energetic, and that hurts, especially at the start. Confidence is a fragile thing, especially with a young team: We can get down on ourselves pretty quick. If we make our early shots, we relax and we feel confident.”

South Lancaster dropped to 2-9 with nine games remaining. The host Crusaders need to win eight out of their last nine to make the postseason.

Notre Dame, led by Russell Rau’s game-high 34 points and 19 rebounds, led pretty much from start to finish Saturday. The only time Notre Dame trailed was in the early going, after Adrian Morales’ 3-pointer from the corner put SLA ahead, 3-2.

Rau followed that up with a trey of his own, and went on to hit two more 3-pointers in the first quarter.

“He can shoot; he doesn’t usually get the opportunity. He found himself open a few times, and he let it fly,” Hammond said.

Key for ND? Valuing the basketball, as the Crusaders only had three turnovers in the first eight minutes.

Yet South Lancaster felt it still had a say in this contest: Notre Dame held a 10-point, 35-25 lead with 4:26 remaining in the first half following Ryan Hammond’s (21 points, 5 rebounds, 3 blocks) drive to the basket, before SLA charged back.

A 2-pointer by Nathan Johnson (14 points) preceded a long deuce at the elbow by Isaiah Baker (14 points, 12 rebounds), who would then score an old-fashioned three-point play to make it a three-point, 35-32 game.

But Rau scored on William Hammond’s (11 points, 3 steals) inbound pass, before Steve Kaanta came up with a steal on the next SLA trip. He found William, who quickly dished to his elder brother for the up-fake and the hoop to give Notre Dame a seven-point, 39-32 lead.

Two Christian Williams hoops, the second with a helper by Emmanuel Bryan (10 points, 9 rebounds) put SLA within three again, but Notre Dame closed the half with a 9-0 run, as Rau drove and left-handed it up and in, before William connected with Ryan for two.

“It was a team effort to come back like that,” said SLA coach Francisco Ramos, one of the school’s three 1,000-point scorers who played under Eddie Folger in the mid-1990s. “We just didn’t have enough to finish off that little run there.”

Colin Proctor found William Hammond for a deuce, before Kaanta closed the half with a trey to give Notre Dame a 48-36 lead at the break.

“I think (our) pressure eventually paid dividends just before the half,” Jeff Hammond said. “We got a good run in the final two minutes of that half, so that gave us a little cushion. The continued pressure paid off as the game went on.”

Notre Dame shot 50 percent from the floor (20 of 40) in the first 16 minutes, while SLA shot 39 percent (16 of 41).

Things calmed down in the third, but it was ND’s free-throw shooting, with Rau sinking four of five from 15 feet away, which helped the South Streeters maintain the lead going into the fourth and final stanza.

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