By David Willis
---- — WORCESTER — Aaron Hall waited anxiously on the bench, hoping for one more shot with the game on line.
Unfortunately for Hall and Central Catholic, the Raiders senior big man was left to cheer from the sidelines for much of last night, and he was not alone.
With Putnam slashing to the hoop early and often, Central Catholic found itself in major early foul trouble, greatly disrupting the Raiders’ plan.
Before the first half had come to a close, both Hall and Nick Cambio had been whistled for three fouls, two away from fouling out of the game.
That meant both spent extensive first half time on the bench. While Cambio was able to overcome the foul woes, Hall picked up his fourth early in the third and fouled out in the fourth.
It wasn’t just on offense, as Putnam found a number of easy baskets without having to contend with Hall and Cambio forced to play carefully. It helped the Beavers hold on for a 74-70 and their second consecutive Division 1 state titles.
“When you lose two of your bigs, it really throws you off,” said Raiders coach Rick Nault. “There were times our tallest guy on the floor was 6-feet tall. That hurt us in rebounding and on defense.”
Just five days after the twin terrors carved up Catholic Memorial on the TD Garden floor, Cambio was forced to play gingerly in the second half and Hall managed just a single hoop.
“We have relied on those two big guys the whole tournament,” said Nault. “They have dominated for us. To have them out for extended minutes hurts a lot. Hall getting hit with that fourth hurt. We asked Alex Santos (6-foot) to defend (6-foot-4) Tyronne Malone, and he did his best.”
Both Hall and Santos fouled out. That was great news for Putnam head coach William Shepard.
“That was HUGE,” said the coach. “Cambio and Hall were doing some damage. We were having trouble defending them, and they were like a boxer that saw a cut and kept going for it. But then they got into foul trouble and it slowed them down.”
For a few moments in the first half, Central Catholic feared its worst nightmare had become a reality when reigning Eagle-Tribune MVP Tyler Nelson rushed to the bench with a finger injury that one fan described as “mangled and horrible.”
Nault feared the worst.
“Tyler came to the bench and said, ‘Coach, my finger is broken!” Nault remembered. “I told him that it was dislocated. But, for a split second, I thought to myself, ‘What if it is broken? We are in trouble if Tyler can’t go back in the game.’ But they popped it back in and it was fine.”
The finger, on his non-shooting left hand, the same as his earlier wrist injury, was taped up and he continued to play. Nault felt the impact on his senior guard’s game was negligible.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “He had a few turnovers, but I think that had more to do with their defense than his finger. Once they got it back in he kept battling and seemed fine.
“But it is really a shame that last shot didn’t fall. After all he has done and the career he has had it would have been nice to see a magical finish. Go to overtime and see what happens. But that just didn’t happen.”
While the Raiders were not able to complete their comeback, Shepard was very impressed by his opponent’s offensive game.
“They scored 70 points, and that is the most we have given up in at least two years,” said the Putnam coach. “I don’t remember the last time we gave up 70. They ran their offense to perfection and got a lot of easy lay-ups. Luckily we made a few more plays.”
Despite fouling out, it was a big night for Alex Santos. He scored 11 points, third on the team to Nelson and Cambio, including six key points in the third.
Santos scored four points at the TD Garden on Monday and had just one bucket against Andover in the North final.
Putnam was concerned heading into the night about guard Jonathan Garcia, who had battled the flu all week and was struggling to practice.
Garcia was up for the challenge last night though, scoring 10 first-quarter points and finishing the day with 14.
“I got a ton of rest, drank a lot of fluids and prayed for the best,” he said.
Shot wouldn’t fall
Several thousand Merrimack Valley basketball fans had seen this drama before.
Central Catholic’s Tyler Nelson, with a chance to tie the game (Central trailed 73-70) with a 3-point attempt with nine seconds remaining, up-faking a defender, sliding over two feet to an open area, and throwing up the shot.
It looked like so many other Nelson shots in Andover, Lawrence, Methuen, Lowell and even Danvers. It looked perfect.
It softly hit to on top of the front rim, then the back rim, and then out of the cylinder.
“He has made that shot so many times,” said Central coach Rick Nault. “I honestly thought it was in. Imagine what a perfect ending that would have been to his career, making another big shot. I can’t tell you how many big shots he hit.”
Putnam coach William Shepard apparently can empathize with Valley hoop fans. He thought it was in, too,
“Nelson is for real,” said Shepard. “He’s an amazing player. He finds ways to get open. You have him covered and he finds a way to make something happen. I figured he was going to make it.”
Westford loses to Braintree
Westford, the Commonwealth Motors Christmas Classic girls champions, lost to mighty Braintree High, 57-46. Braintree led the entire game, never able to break totally away. Westford got to within five points in the final four minutes, but couldn’t get within on possession.
Braintree lost at the Boston Garden the last two years to Andover High and Central Catholic before beating Lynn English last Monday night.
Christmas tourney MVP Samantha Hyslip, whose father Craig was an Eagle-Tribune All-Star football player at Andover high, led Westford with 24 points and was eight-for-eight from the line.
Central fans out in droves
The Red Sea ... aka Central Catholic students ... took over the DCU Center with more than 250 students at the game.
Again, Central rented four buses for the state final, and all were full to capacity.
“We needed an extra bus for the Garden probably because that was a school night,” said Central AD Ernie DiFiore.
The Gemmell speech
It became tradition over the last few weeks, 2013 Central grad Doug Gemmell talking to the team before it took the floor.
Home game for Pettway
Central sophomore A.J. Pettway grew up only a few miles from the DCU Center. His father, a head coach at Worcester North, played at Worcester State with Central coach Rick Nault. Pettway transferred to Central this fall from North.