By Hector Longo
---- — BEVERLY — With the game and a spot in the Division 1 North sectional finals pretty much salted away, Tyler Nelson stepped to the line to the chant of “MVP, MVP, MVP!” from the fans in the Raider cheering section.
Last night, those “Red Sea” folks were flat-out wrong.
The amazing Nelson had to share the honors last night. Central’s incredible, 81-74, overtime win here over St. John’s Prep was the ultimate team performance.
Pick a Raider, he stepped up as the Prep swarmed Nelson with everything and everyone.
Nobody played bigger than Aaron Hall in the second half. The senior netted 13 second-half points to be one of three Raiders with 19 on the night.
Of course, front court mate Nick Cambio (19 points) was another. At the Raiders’ most dire time, down nine in the third quarter, it was Cambio’s number that got called and he responded with three huge hoops from the block.
Defensive specialist Alex Santos? Ten big points.
Sophomore A.J. Pettway? A pair of overtime hoops, one on a fearless drive, the other giving Central the lead for good at 73-71 with 1:06 left in OT as he scooped up a loose ball, tripped and as he was falling to the floor, banked in an over-the-head hook shot.
It was that kind of night, and Central needed every bit of to combat an uncanny shooting night from Prep junior Ben Judson, who led all scorers with 32.
“Ben was unbelievable for them, but tonight it was my teammates who really stepped it up,” said Nelson. “Aaron was huge. Nick dominated. That’s what has to happen when teams are all over me.”
Of course, so much of the comeback still flowed through Nelson, who played nearly the whole fourth quarter and overtime with four fouls.
The Fairfield-bound senior led with 19 points and nine assists. He also had eight big rebounds including one in traffic at 73-71 in overtime that might be one of the greatest in Central history, fighting through at least six Prep hands to rip it away.
Down 59-52 after three, it was Hall who grabbed a pair of offensive rebounds and cashed in for five quick points. Nelson then weaved through traffic on a coast-to-coast drive, knotting things at 59-59 with 5:05 in regulation.
From there, nobody in the crowd of about 3,500 sat down the rest of the way.
Judson’s banker gave the Prep its last lead of regulation at 66-65 with a minute to play. Central’s Santos answered. And with just under a minute left Eagle Mike Bisson hit one of two free throws to tie.
Each team had a final chance. Central turned its over, and the Prep got a decent look at the buzzer, but Kareem Davis’ 16-footer clanged out.
After the teams traded deuces twice in OT, “Pettway’s Prayer” put Central up for good at 73-71.
Judson went to the hole, rolling to his left (strong) hand with the floater that had been so lethal all night.
With the shot challenged, he went sprawling off the floor and the ball rimmed out. As Central was walking it up, Judson was hit for a technical foul with 44 seconds left.
The two Nelson foul shots plus the ball pretty much ended it as Central was never threatened.
“The technical was unfortunate there, and a lot of people will focus on it,” said Raider coach Rick Nault. “But we were up two with the ball with 40 seconds left.”
Nault was quick to praise his defense in the second half, as quick as he was to bury it in the first half.
St. John’s put up 43 in the first half, with Judson netting 20 of them. Central had given up 50 and 56 in its first two tourney victories.
“We had a team goal set at holding him to 35 for the game. They torched us,” said Nault, noting that number was eclipsed early in the second quarter.
“But when we had to in the fourth quarter and in overtime, we just got stops. And that’s what we do.”
Central Catholic 81, St. John’s Prep 74
Division 1 North Semifinals
Central (81): Aaron Hall 9 1-4 19, Tyler Nelson 5 9-10 19, Alex Santos 5 0-0 10, Nick Cambio 8 3-3 19, Pat Sullivan 2 0-0 4, Alec Buresh 2 0-0 6, A.J. Pettway 2 0-0 4, Kevin Fernandez 0 0-0 0, Totals 33 13-17 81
SJP (74): Ben Judson 11 5-6 32, Max Burt 7 1-2 16, Max Butterbrodt 4 2-2 10, Kareem Davis 4 2-4 11, Mike Bisson 1 1-2 3, Jake Burt 1 0-0 2, Totals 28 11-16 74
3-pointers: CC — Buresh 2; SJP — Judson 5, M. Burt, Davis
St. John’s Prep: 20 23 16 8 7 — 74
Central Catholic: 21 16 15 15 14 — 81