By Mike Grenier
---- — LAWRENCE – Central Catholic’s high-powered basketball program dominated St. John’s Prep for so many years that the so-called ‘rivalry’ was almost considered a joke.
However, no one is laughing at the Eagles anymore. Not since they won the Division 1 state championship two years ago ... and not since they began turning the tide against their nemesis Central Catholic.
Proving that its home win two weeks ago against mighty Central was no fluke, the Prep duplicated the feat on the road last night by holding off the Raiders, 64-62, in the opening round of the IAABO Board 130 Classic Tournament.
The win spiked the Eagles’ record to 18-1 and put them in the tourney championship game tonight (7:15 p.m.) against Lynn English, which downed Springfield Central, 81-73, in the other semifinal.
“Coach Joe Lovett (an assistant for the Prep) has been coming here for 23 years and had never seen (the Eagles) win in this gym, but we were able to do it tonight,” said junior guard Quentin Bullen, who came off the bench and scored a career-high 16 points in this one.
“When the preseason rankings came out, we weren’t even in the top 25 ... or even 35,” added Bullen. “Central was in the top five, like always. But I think we sent a message (by beating them twice) that we’re a team to be reckoned with.”
The Eagles blew a 21-point third quarter lead, but won it in the most dramatic fashion imaginable as senior guard Drex Costello (16 points) drilled a three-pointer with 7 seconds remaining, giving his team a 64-61 lead.
Costello then made a critical defensive play to end it. Central Catholic (16-4) sharpshooting guard Tyler Nelson (18 points) was fouled with 3.8 seconds left and made the first shot to narrow it to 64-62. Everyone in the jam-packed gym knew that Nelson would purposely miss the second shot.
Sure enough, he clanked it well enough for teammate Joel Berroa (a game-high 25 points) to get his hands on it for a potential tying basket, but Costello knocked it out of Berroa’s hands and dribbled out the clock.
Costello was still in a bit of a daze after the game, trying to recall the sequence that led to his winning basket.
“I honestly didn’t know how much time was left,” said Costello. “I thought it was going to be a buzzer-beating shot. I was dribbling and I kind of lost (the ball), but when I got it back I just took it. I’d hit a three (with 33 seconds left, giving the Prep a 59-58 lead) a little earlier, so I felt pretty good about taking the last shot.”
Senior point guard Tyler Dooley (10) and senior forward Josh Syska (10) joined Costello and Bullen as double digit scorers for the Eagles. In fact, everyone who played made some sort of contribution for SJP, whether it was playing tenacious defense, pulling down rebounds or just setting picks. That’s what it takes to beat Central Catholic, which was absolutely relentless in making a fabulous comeback in the second half. Central actually led 56-54 and then 58-56 down the stretch.
“Well, you know that Central wasn’t going to go away — they never go away,” said Prep head coach Sean Connolly. “Berroa just killed us in the second half. He does everything incredibly well. He’s one of the best players in the state; might even be the best player in the state.
“I just think our kids toughed it out at the end. Drex has made big shots for us before and did it again tonight.”
Central coach Ricky Nault had nothing but high praise for Connolly’s game plan and the way the Eagles executed it.
“Sean has his team running those halfcourt sets; they’re so complicated,” said Nault, whose team looked confused in falling behind, 40-23, in the opening half. “All the credit goes to them. We made the comeback and had a chance to win it at the end, but St. John’s made the plays that won it.”
The Eagles can close out the regular season with a bang tonight in the title game against Lynn English. But it’s hard to believe that it could be as precious as beating Central Catholic.