LYNN — Jorge Perez didn’t know it, but he was just seconds away from sitting on the Lynn Classical bench.
Three sub-par possessions for Perez had Rams’ coach Tom Grassa calling to his bench in a tight game against Salem, but Perez made up for his mistakes by drilling a critical three-pointer with 1:59 to go to help Classical seal a 62-58 win over the Witches.
Classical wrapped up a share of the Northeastern Conference Large title with the victory. The Rams can win it outright with a win over Lynn English tomorrow night. A loss for Classical would pull English even, and open the door for Salem to grab a piece of the title.
During Grassa’s tenure the Rams have not won an outright title, but shared the crown five times. Lynn Classical last stood alone atop the NEC mountain in 1983.
The clutch three-pointer from Perez made the title a possibility for Classical (14-7 overall, 12-3 NEC).
“Perez had a sequence where he had a turnover and a poor shot, and his man hit a shot down the other end,” said Grassa, talking his way through the substitution thought process. “I had to pull the man back for the bench because he hit a huge three.”
This one truly was a game of runs and an early fourth quarter spurt had given the Rams an 11-point advantage (49-38) before Salem responded.
A Christian Dunston three pulled Salem within five (57-52) with 2:23 to go, and it appeared the Witches (12-5 overall, 11-4 NEC) were playing with the momentum.
Salem made a defensive stop, but couldn’t secure the rebound — something that has plagued the undersized Witches all season — and the ball kicked out to Perez, who was positioned all alone on the left wing. He didn’t hesitate before burying the open look that gave Classical a 60-52 lead.
“It was one of those things where our guys did what they were supposed to do. It was a second chance point where we made a good defensive stop. The ball got loose and then got kicked out for the three. That was a back-breaker,” Salem coach Tom Doyle said. “It was a tough one because we had the momentum at that time. They missed a shot and it was one of those things that if we get that rebound, who knows?”
Dunston followed with a three-point play to cut the deficit back to five points, but Salem couldn’t extend the game enough to have a last-second chance.
“Our kids played great at times, but we couldn’t sustain it for the whole game,” Doyle said.
Classical kept Dunston, who has been battling sickness recently, in check for most of the game. Dunston’s first field goal came with 2:35 left in third quarter and he finished with only eight points.
Marvin Baez led Salem with 16 points, and the Witches got great production from junior reserves David Kazadi and Jamie Dominguez. Kazadi played excellent defense in the post and scored 15 points. Dominguez handled the ball well for Salem and hit three three-pointers in the first half.
“They’ve been playing great for us for awhile now and giving us some huge minutes. It’s something that we’re certainly excited about, but now we gotta get the whole unit playing well together,” Doyle said. “They’re giving us a great boost off the bench, but we’re not consistently playing a whole game yet. We’re taking too much time off in games. We look really good at times and play really good for most of the game, but we have too much time where we’re not executing right now.”
Salem started each half slowly, sitting back as the Rams went on significant runs.
Classical started the game hot and opened a 16-4 lead. To start the second half, after Salem had whittled the Rams’ lead down to four point at halftime, Classical ran off a 10-2 stretch.
“Games are won by whoever has the last run,” Grassa said. “It was just like a roller coaster; they’d go on an 8-2 run, we’d go on an 8-2 run. You just have to be fortunate to get the last one.”
Classical had four players in double-figures, led by sophomore forward Phillip Rogers’ 18 points. Eraldo Custodio and Jordan Brown had 15 points each, and Perez chipped in with 10.
Salem still has a league game remaining against Beverly Friday night, and the Witches can still hope for a share of the title.
“It’s out of our hands ... something we’ll have to wait and see,” Doyle said.