ANDOVER — Man for man, Andover High ran step for step with Central Catholic, from the opening tap to the final horn.
The Warriors simply had no answers when the Raiders shifted gear and went zone.
Twice in the second half, Central coach Rick Nault flipped the switch. The results were runs of 12-1 and 8-0 by the Raiders, who latched on to at least half of the Merrimack Valley Conference Division 1 title with a 60-54 victory here at a packed Dunn Gymnasium.
“We knew they’d go zone, you know, great coaching over there. We just have to be a little more confident against it,” said Warrior coach David Fazio. “We just got a little spooked, a couple brain cramps, that was it. We were just too sloppy with the ball.”
The late miscues were particularly agonizing, with the Raiders nursing a 46-43 advantage. Three straight Andover turnovers resulted in six points in a row by Tyler Nelson, pushing the margin to 52-43.
“The zone just changed the pace of the game,” said Nelson, who played all 32 minutes and led all scorers with 27 points on the night. “It slowed them down, and we got the turnovers we needed.”
Andover found an elixir, going inside out and scoring with back-to-back David Giribaldi threes, but it was too late, what with Nault basically handing the game over to his junior assassin.
Nelson would answer Giribaldi’s athletic, fast-break, catch and score layin with two free throws inside the final minute. One more from the stripe would make it a 17-point second-half for The Eagle-Tribune Super Teamer.
“I think Tyler showed the type of player he really is tonight,” said Raider coach Rick Nault. “He was immense. Joel (Berroa) and Nick (Cambio) have been stepping it up lately, but they were in foul trouble. So we did all we could to keep the ball in Tyler’s hands.”
Nelson did it from all angles, deep behind the arc and off the dribble, creating creases and contact from the Warrior defense while knocking in 8 of 17 from the field and 8 of 10 from the line.
Guards Lucas Hammel and Jamahl Lopez each picked up the scoring slack, tossing in nine points apiece as their bigger brethren in the starting lineup struggled with fouls.
For Nelson, it was quite the statement before the conference MVP vote in Sunday morning’s coach’s meeting.
“It’s not something I was thinking about,” joked Nelson. “It’s a tough place to play, and we were thinking about winning a championship.”
Make that 3 for 3 for Nelson, and 7 for 7 for Nault as far as league titles go. Now, the Raiders will have to decide how selfish they wish to be. Wednesday, they travel to Lowell. Beat the Red Raiders at Riddick Fieldhouse and Central claims sole possession of the league title. Lose, and North Andover, which closed out its conference campaign last night with a win over Methuen, picks up a share.
Of course before all that, Central hosts the IAABO Board 130 Classic Sunday and Monday, opening up tomorrow night against St. John’s Prep.
For Andover, now 13-6, the news was not all bad as talented sophomore big man Connor Merinder made his season debut after sitting out with a wrist injury to his non-shooting hand. The wrist was heavily wrapped, but Merinder looked smooth, canning two of his three shots.
Sam Dowden, despite missing about 12 second-half minutes in a giant heap of foul trouble, led his team with 13 points. Giribaldi had a dozen and Jack Konevich chipped in 11.
Central Catholic 60, Andover 54
Central Catholic (60): Tyler Nelson 8 8-10 27, Nick Cambio 3 0-3 6, Lucas Hammel 2 5-6 9, Jamahl Lopez 4 1-3 9, Mike Barry 1 0-0 3, Joel Berroa 2 0-0 4, Aaron Hall 1 0-0 2, Totals 21 14-22 60
Andover (54): Max Silveira 2 5-5 9, Sam Dowden 5 3-6 13, David Giribaldi 4 2-4 12, Jack Konevich 2 5-5 11, Chris Dunn 1 1-2 3, Greg Dreyfus 1 0-0 2, Connor Merinder 2 0-0 4, Totals 17 16-22 54
3-pointers: A — Giribaldi 2, Konevich 2; CC — Nelson 3, M. Barry
Central Catholic (16-3): 16 14 14 16 — 60
Andover (13-6): 17 9 12 16 — 54