SPRINGFIELD — For three quarters, Perspectives Charter School held the St. John's Prep basketball team in check, leading by nine points entering the final quarter.
Yet on the verge of suffering their first defeat of the season, the Eagles, led by junior Steve Haladyna's 17 second-half points, began playing inspired basketball. They outscored the Chicago-based school, 29-11, in the fourth quarter en route to a 62-53 victory in the 10th annual Spalding Hoophall Classic.
Haladyna, who also had six rebounds and three steals, was named the game's Most Valuable Player. The Hoophall Classic annually draws some of the top schoolboy teams from across the nation to the birthplace of basketball each year.
The fourth quarter served as a complete anomaly to the Prep's performance in the first half, when it shot 21 percent from the field, including 3-of-17 from behind the arc. St. John's guard Pat Connaughton (19 points, 13 rebounds, 5 steals, 3 blocks) was largely silenced early on, totaling four points in the opening 16 minutes, while missing all six of his three-point attempts.
The game's tempo was primarily established by the play of Perspectives forward Anthony Davis, who ranks second nationally among high school recruits from the class of 2011, according to ESPN rankings. The wiry, University of Kentucky-bound Davis finished with a game-high 30 points, 16 rebounds, seven blocks and two steals.
"In the first half, we were tentative," St. John's Prep (8-0) head coach Sean Connolly said. "Their length bothered us, especially with a guy who's 6-foot-10 like Davis. Long arms, covers a lot of ground, blocks a lot of shots.
"(In practice), we have no one that can emulate (Davis). We tried, though. We have a 6-2 kid who can't jump, so I mean, you just can't emulate that. But you do the best you can."
When the Eagles' offense awoke in the fourth quarter, teammates consistently found Haladyna drifting along the baseline, where the 6-5 forward/guard was able to either penetrate for buckets around the cylinder or find shooters on the perimeter when the defense collapsed.
"He was the one guy, even in the first half, that was attacking and being aggressive," Connolly said of Haladyna. "As a team we were more aggressive in the second half, attacking the basket."
Free throw shooting illustrated the Eagles' newfound aggressiveness. While going to line just twice in the first half (3-of-4 free throws), St. John's made 12-of-16 in the second half.
After missing his first nine attempts, Connaughton sunk his first three-pointer with four minutes remaining in regulation, tying the game at 49. St. John's went ahead for good on the Notre Dame-bound star's second three-pointer with three minutes to go, making it 54-51. It was the first lead change since Perspectives took a 6-5 advantage in the first quarter, and only the second of the game.
From there, the Eagles finished the game on a 13-4 run, highlighted by a Connaughton rebound dunk, a crucial charge drawn by the Prep's Freddy Shove (10 points, 5 rebounds) in a four-point game with under a minute to go, and a Haladyna reverse layup contested by Davis.
"When Pat and other guys, like Mike (Carbone), are struggling, I feel like I've got to step up," said Haladyna. "And there were a lot of holes in that 2-3 (zone), so I just looked to get in the gaps."
After Haladyna fouled out with 2:30 to go in the fourth, Davis left the game with a hand injury and would not return. His absence, along with hitting 4-of-10 free throws in the second half, made it difficult for the Wolves to contend the streaking Eagles.
Davis' presence in Perspectives' 2-3 zone played a huge role in prohibiting the Eagles offensively in the early stages of the contest. Davis' 10 rebounds and six blocks before the half helped limit St. John's to 20 first-half points.
Defensively, Connolly tried at least three different defenders on Davis and frequently implemented a full-court trap. Altogether, the Eagles forced 32 turnovers while committing 10.
"We needed to speed the pace of the game up," said Connolly, whose squad amassed 39 points off turnovers compared to the Wolves' 11. "We were kind of lackadaisical in the first half. I wanted to make their guards have to make decisions — and we had a bit of an advantage there."
For a Prep team that has proven at times to be lethal offensively, its troubles against the zone — specifically not penetrating the paint or consistently hitting from outside — persisted for the better part of three quarters. In sum, the team converted on five of its 29 three-point attempts (17 percent) in the contest.
Regardless, it was an important, albeit tough win for Massachusetts' top-ranked team.
"This is a real building block," Connaughton stressed. "We're going for a state championship, obviously. And to beat a team from Chicago that has the second-ranked player in the country, that helps us.
"But we can't go back and say, 'We just beat a team from Chicago and this is just a state team we're playing.' It doesn't work that way. Now everyone is going to want to beat us even more."