By Matt Jenkins
---- — DANVERS — Central Catholic always plays an intense, physical style of basketball and there was only one way for St. John’s Prep to survive it when the two teams met yesterday afternoon.
“I think we matched them,” senior guard Drex Costello said after the Eagles posted a hard-fought 55-52 victory on their home court. “We were thinking they were going to try to play football and we had to play strong.”
St. John’s brought the same type of balance that it has played with all season, and the Eagles were the ones who ratcheted up the intensity level at the very beginning.
Costello led the Prep with 13 points and helped classmate Tyler Dooley handle Central’s high-pressure man-to-man defense. Meanwhile, post players Josh Syska and Max Butterbrodt came through with big plays on both ends of the court as the Eagles held off a late Raiders’ rally.
St. John’s was prepared for Central’s physical play, and it paid off big down the stretch as an 11-point lead (53-42) with 4:09 to go was whittled down to one-point (53-52) with 38 seconds to play.
The Eagles (15-1) had just enough to hold on.
“That’s how we practiced, like it was football,” said Syska, who scored eight points and pulled down nine rebounds, six offensive. “We just work as a team on and off the court.”
Syska hit an elbow jumper to put the Prep up 11, but Central (13-3) responded with a 10-0 run over the next few minutes. The Raiders began double-teaming the St. John’s guards in the backcourt, and the Prep had a hard time getting into its offense.
Syska’s jumper was the team’s final field goal. Costello and sophomore Ben Judson each made one free throw in the dying moments to help St. John’s hang on.
“Even up 12-14 points that team doesn’t go down,” Prep coach Sean Connolly said about Central Catholic. “You’ve gotta be tough, gotta be physical. Otherwise, they’ll abuse you.”
Central actually created a lot of chances with its defense late in the game, but the offense couldn’t come through.
The Raiders forced St. John’s into a five-second violation on an inbound attempt when they trailed by only one point, but they followed that forced turnover with a turnover of their own. A Costello free throw with 11 seconds remaining put the Eagles up two, but Central turned the ball over one more time to end the threat. Judson made his free throw with two seconds left.
“I think it was a tough game. Even down seven with 1:45 left we kept believing,” Central Catholic coach Ricky Nault said. “To have the ball with 18 seconds left and a chance to go ahead was what we wanted. We executed, we just didn’t get to the ball the next trip.”
Defensively, St. John’s made things very difficult for the Raiders.
The Eagles — primarily Costello — handcuffed Central junior guard Tyler Nelson all game. Nelson, one of the top shooters in the state, managed only 10 points on 1-for-13 shooting.
Nelson couldn’t get going early — scoring only two points in the first half — and didn’t hit a three-pointer.
“That was very important,” Costello said. “We wanted to keep him in check, disrupt his shot and not let him get going.”
Dooley scored 12 points and dished out eight assists for the Eagles, while Butterbrodt scored nine of his 11 points during a two-minute stretch late in the second quarter, which helped St. John’s take a 32-24 advantage into the locker room.
Joel Berroa scored 18 points and Nick Cambio added 14 to lead Central, which played without senior captain Doug Gemmell, who was out with a head injury.
“They’re a solid team; they don’t have any weaknesses,” Nault said about the Prep. “Ben Judson is a 6-4 3-man and they have the best backcourt we’ve seen all year.”