LAWRENCE — The road to the MIAA Division 1 boys’ basketball final might go through Lawrence, with two of the top teams in the state sitting atop the current power rankings.
On Friday night, No. 1 Lawrence outlasted host Central Catholic, 54-49, in a physical battle between Merrimack Valley Conference rivals.
The Lancers (12-1) prevailed for the second time this season over their city rival, but there is a healthy dose of mutual respect in this rivalry, exemplified by a halftime ceremony dedicated to 76-year-old Steve Kelley, who retired this past fall after 56 years working at the Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence.
“Almost all of [the players on Lawrence and Central] are kids that I’ve worked with,” said Kelley. “And just seeing the kids progress the way they have, I think this is a tribute to the city, to the amazing kids that live in this city.”
The stands and surrounding balconies were absolutely packed for a battle between the top teams in the MVC. Neither team could find much footing offensively in the first half, but Lawrence wrapped an 18-3 run around the break to open a 33-21 lead early in the third quarter.
Central (8-2) responded with a 15-2 run that included three triples from junior John Kelley (17 points), and a couple of layups from Nick Sangermano (10 points) and Markys Bridgewater (4 points, 4 steals) after breaking the Lawrence press.
Showing the poise they’ve garnered during a tough schedule, the Lancers called a timeout and took control with a 9-2 run sparked by Danny Reyes (17 points, 6 rebounds) and Nasiha Perez (4 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists).
“In a playoff game, I’m probably calling a timeout earlier,” said Lawrence coach Jesus Moore. “But in the season I like to give my kids an opportunity to respond, and they went on that run, and it’s impressive to watch the maturity and growth my kids have made in a year. Last year, Central probably runs away with this one, but this year we weathered the storm.”
Isaiah Ogunbare (10 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks) led a dominant effort on the boards for the Lancers with John Ocasio chipping in 9 points.
Lawrence has now handed Central its only two losses on the season, with the rivals set to meet one more time on Feb 14 at Lawrence High.
“Our kids grow up together, they play AAU together, they work out together, and they obviously split apart in high school,” said Moore, a former multi-sport star at Lawrence. “So it’s always been like this. It doesn’t matter how good either team is, it’s just a dog fight.”
“We played with a little bit more fire. Because [our players] wanted to go home with those bragging rights. And how could you not get up in a packed house like this? They couldn’t even hear me, and I’m probably the loudest guy in the state. It’s an amazing environment and that shows how special it is.”