BOSTON — It was no coincidence last night that the poster boy for this Central Catholic season, rugged senior Lucas Hammel, had a tape over his swollen right eye, as if he were a boxer or mixed martial arts fighter.
In essence, that was what he and his teammates were this winter, particularly the final six weeks — fighters.
Realizing that a few basketball towns in the Merrimack Valley — particularly those in Andover and Methuen — feel absolutely no pity for the “All-Star Team on Hampshire Street” after a tough loss on the TD Garden parquet floor, the thing is this Central team represents the game in our region as much as any.
Sure, in December ... heck, even this summer, everyone with a stitch of basketball knowledge in the Merrimack Valley knew Central was loaded with at least five future college basketball players and probably was as good as any team in the state.
Central probably proved that premonition in its first defeat of this winter, when it lost to defending national champion, St. Anthony’s of Jersey City, N.J., 55-51, in Boston just before the new year. It was a game Central easily could have won in the final seconds.
But as the season went on, so did the unexpected. Central first lost 6-foot-4 senior Doug Gemmell to a serious concussion in a game against North Andover High (a loss!). And nearly a month later it lost 6-foot-5 junior Nick Cambio.
Let the losing begin, right?
Not on coach Ricky Nault’s watch. Gemmell and Cambio weren’t the only two players committing to Nault’s “hellish” man-to-man, full-court defense every day in practice. There were 13 other players who competed in the same, painful drills.
And along came the replacements, including and especially, 6-foot-6 junior Aaron Hall, ready, willing and able to keep Central in elite status despite losing two key big men.
”I am so impressed with this Central team,” said Mansfield coach Michael Vaughan. “When we went ahead 24-17, I knew they wouldn’t go away. I realize they’re down two key starters, but they just don’t go away.”
Of course, there is the mental part of “fighting,” and nobody exemplifies that better than one of our region’s top players in Tyler Nelson.
In the first half he was scoreless, going 0 for 8, and, at least to his standards, not playing remotely well. In the second half, he was best of the best with 15 second half points, including three 3-pointers.
”Tyler just finds a way,” said coach Vaughan. “We threw a few guys at him, but we couldn’t stop him (in the second half). He is scary to prepare for because he can score from anywhere.”
For those that weren’t here last night, Central was definitely the second most talented team on the floor. Mansfield High, which has two huge basketball-only complexes within a mile of each other, was bigger, more athletic and wouldn’t stop running.
In fact, after Central clawed back to get its first lead since the midway point of the second quarter, 47-46, on a Nelson drive, Mansfield immediately drove the ball for a quick layup. When Nelson tied it at 50-50 with just over a minute remaining, Mansfield got a hoop within seven seconds to take the lead for good.
“It seems all year long, when we needed a big stop, we would get it,” said Nault. “But not tonight. When we got the lead and then tied it, we couldn’t stop them.”
But Nault wasn’t complaining. Not last night.
His Central Catholic basketball team almost pulled off the upset — it’s weird saying Central might “upset” anybody — and almost played for a state championship.
“I told them that to have this run that we had, playing in five state tourney games without Gemmell and Cambio, that is nothing to be ashamed of,” said Nault. “I really am proud of this team and these seniors. We just didn’t have enough at the end. But we fought until the end.”
Email Bill Burt at firstname.lastname@example.org.