LAWRENCE — Andover coach David Fazio passed Central Catholic coach Rick Nault in the hallway after their Greater Lawrence Christmas Tourney semifinal game.
Nault gave him a quick hug and said just two words:
It was a memorable one indeed as the defending champion Raiders had to rally from a 61-58 deficit in the final 3:20 to beat the Golden Warriors, 65-63. Central will play Lawrence, which downed Pinkerton, in the title game on Saturday at 7:15 p.m.
It wasn’t decided until a Jack Konevich 3-pointer from the wing bounced off the rim as time expired.
Central was on fire, outscoring Andover 28-10 in the second quarter to take a 39-26 lead into the break. Despite its 4-0 record, Andover’s odds of a comeback seemed slim against the vaunted Raiders.
But rally it did, eventually taking the lead on a Max Silveira free throw with 3:30 left to cap an 8-0 run.
Then the Raiders did something they rarely if ever do. Went to a zone defense.
Assistant Kevin McCarthy suggested it, head coach Rick Nault agreed to it and it paid huge dividends.
“We went to the 2-3, which is something we never do,” said Nault, whose club gets no rest, playing defending national champ St. Anthony’s of Jersey City tonight at 7 at Emmanuel College before playing the Christmas Tourney championship game tomorrow.
“It was just to change the tempo and momentum.”
After an offensive rebound, Doug Gemmell (10 points) converted two free throws. Joel Berroa (game-high 20 points) scored on a drive (but missed the free throw) and the unbeaten Raiders (5-0) led 62-60.
Andover forced a tough 3-pointer and Gemmell, who took over late, scored a lay-up with 1:04 left. Andover forced another tough 3 but then with 24 seconds left the Raiders had a brain cramp and fouled Andover’s Chris Dunn on a trey. He made two of three.
Berroa missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 12 seconds left and Andover called time with 8.2 seconds left.
But Central forced a pass into the backcourt and Silveira appeared to slip. He got the ball to Konevich whose rushed three wouldn’t fall.
The silky smooth 6-4 senior forward Berroa, who was the most impressive player on the floor, shook his head over the Andover comeback.
“I was kind of shocked,” said Berroa, who lives in Lowell. “Andover is tough. Give them props. We respect them.”
Central got a boost from the return of point guard Lucas Hammel. He carved up the Andover defense in the big second quarter with several pin-point passes for layups.
“Getting him back was big,” said Berroa, who was also a force on the boards.
Even when they were on their heels, Berroa, the son of a minister, said the Raiders never lost the faith.
“We always have confidence in big games,” he said.
Andover started strong, leading the top-ranked team in EMass. 16-11 after one. Sam Dowden and David Giribaldi both had five points in the frame but Andover suffered a tough blow when Giribaldi picked up his third foul with 1.3 seconds left in the quarter.
Andover trailed 48-43 after three but rallied as Giribaldi and Dunn had five points each and Dowden chipped in seven in the fourth.
Dowden and his undersized mates battled valiantly against the much bigger Raiders (6-4 Gemmell, 6-4 Berroa, 6-6 Cambio). But without its talented 6-4 sophomore Connor Merinder (out until February with a broken wrist), Andover was overmatched down low.
The build-up and intensity of the game were draining. Fazio poured so much into it, he accidentally walked into the Central locker room after the game.
“I’m proud of my kids, their character and heart,” said the 24th-year Andover coach. “We’re not afraid of them.”
As for pulling off an upset which would shock the state, Fazio said that was the last thing on his mind.
“I don’t care what people say, honestly,” he said.
Follow Michael Muldoon on Twitter under the screen name @MullyET.
Central Catholic 65,
agateText:Central Catholic (65): Lucas Hammel 1 0-0 2, Tyler Nelson 2 0-0 5, Jamahl Lopez 0 2-2 2, Nick Cambio 6 2-2 16, Joel Berroa 9 2-5 20, Mike Barry 5 0-0 10, Doug Gemmell 3 4-4 10. Totals 26 10-13 65
Andover (63): Jack Konevich 2 0-1 4, John Pisacreta 0 0-0 0, Max Silveira 1 3-4 5, Tyler Verrette 3 0-0 6, David Giribaldi 6 1-3 14, Alex Brickman 2 0-1 4, Chris Dunn 4 2-5 12, Greg Dreyfus 0 2-2 2, Sam Dowden 4 6-6 16. Totals 22 14-23 63
3-pointers: CC — Cambio 2, Nelson; A — Dunn 2, Dowden 2, Giribaldi
Central Catholic (5-0):11 28 9 17 — 65
Andover (4-1):16 10 17 20 — 63
Boys Christmas Tourney
at Lawrence High
Game 5 (consolation): North Andover 75, Salem 43
Game 6 (consolation): Methuen 64, Greater Lawrence 52
Game 7 (semifinal): Central Catholic 65, Andover 63
Game 8 (semifinal): Lawrence 65, Pinkerton 52
Seventh-place Game: Salem vs. Greater Lawrence, 2 p.m.
Fifth-place Game: North Andover vs. Methuen, 3:45 p.m.
Third-place Game: Andover vs. Pinkerton, 5:30 p.m.
Championship Game: Central Catholic vs. Lawrence, 7:15 p.m.