LAWRENCE — Gone are the days when St. John’s Prep used to be content with merely being competitive against Division 1 basketball powerhouse Central Catholic.
Ever since the 2010-11 season, when the Prep knocked off Central twice en route to its lone state championship in the program’s history, the Eagles have treated every meeting with the Raiders as a winnable game.
That was the case again yesterday, but in a classic fight-and-scratch game that you’d hope to see from two strong teams late in the regular season, Central Catholic senior Tyler Nelson drilled a three-pointer with under a minute remaining to snap a 57-57 tie and the Raiders hung on for a 63-60 win before the usual capacity crowd here.
Nelson’s game-changing shot came after St. John’s (13-4) had erased a 57-51 deficit in the late stages on back-to-back threes by Ben Judson and junior point guard Kareem Davis, who tied it with 60 seconds left.
There was no hesitation by Nelson (20 points) after that. He created space for himself and let it fly. It’s something that the Fairfield-bound guard has been doing for four years.
“We don’t call a play for Tyler there — he just goes (and improvises),” said Central Catholic (14-4) coach Rick Nault. “This is the kind of thing we’ve come to expect from Nelson. He’s a senior leader who’s been in a lot of big games and who’s won a lot of big games for us.
“They gave us the kind of game we thought it would be,” Nault said of the Prep. “They’re incredibly well-coached with great players. I said to my guys before the game that we go into a lot of games where we say, okay, we can win three out of five matchups (in the starting lineup). But not against the Prep. You look at our personnel and their personnel and it’s a tossup.”
Central’s A.J. Pettway (9 points overall) canned two foul shots with 37 seconds left to give his team a 62-57 edge, but St. John’s climbed right back into it on Max Burt’s (10 points overall) deep three with 30 seconds remaining, cutting it to 62-60.
The Prep had a new life when Central’s Aaron Hall missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 21 seconds left. The Eagles could’ve stolen a win with a three on their final possession, but Burt couldn’t connect on a pair of outside shots and Central Nick’s Cambio (21 points) finally secured it with a free throw with 1.5 seconds left.
“We got the looks we wanted (in the final 20 seconds),” said Prep coach John Dullea. “We got an offensive rebound (after the missed outside shot), didn’t get a foul (underneath), and then we had another (outside) shot. You couldn’t ask for better opportunities.
“We battled back from 57-51 and tied it up, but obviously, the dagger was Tyler’s three.”
The Eagles are unfazed by a hostile environment and it showed in the early going when Davis broke down Central’s defense from the point and the Prep forged leads of 25-15 and 29-23 in the second quarter. But Dullea had to use Davis judiciously because of foul problems and Central methodically worked its way back into it, finally grabbing a 37-35 lead late in the third quarter on a pair of Nelson free throws. It would go back and forth in the fourth quarter.
“Davis played great — he runs the show for us,” said Dullea. “We had to pull him out at different times (after he picked up two fouls in the opening half), but he had that big three for us late in the game.
“When we were up 25-15, we knew it wouldn’t go on like that,” added Dullea. “We’re not 10 points better and we talked about it at halftime. We thought it would come down to the last two or three minutes and it did.”
The Prep’s sticky defense kept 6-foot-6 senior forward Cambio quiet in the first half, but a combination of clever back door cuts and Cambio’s power moves inside enabled him to score 17 of his 21 points in the closing half.
Judson and Davis had matching 14-point games to pace the Eagles. Max Butterbrodt (11) and Burt (10) joined them as double digit scorers, and Mike Bisson (9) made a terrific contribution off the bench, including a thunderous dunk that ended up being a three-point play with the ensuing foul shot. That kind of balanced scoring would ordinarily lead to a win for the Prep, but not this time.
Nault figured his team might not be through with St. John’s just yet. The Division 1 North state tourney is just a few weeks away and a second meeting is possible.
“They might be the team to beat in the North,” Nault said. “No disrespect meant to Lynn English or anybody else, but the Prep is just so good.”
Dullea wouldn’t mind seeing Central Catholic again.
“Yeah, it would mean that both teams are advancing in the state tourney,” said Dullea. “So it’s not the worst thing in the world.”