LOWELL — A road win and a conference title seemed to be in jeopardy for the Lawrence boys’ basketball team at ninth-ranked Lowell Tuesday night.
But the fifth-ranked Lancers found a way to rally back from a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit and force overtime.
Lawrence senior guard Juan Felix Rodriguez stepped up with 5 huge points in the extra period, leading the Lancers to a 75-72 victory and putting them in prime position to earn their first Merrimack Valley Conference title in over a decade.
“Going into the state [tournament], this shows what this group of guys has in them,” said Lawrence coach Raymond Nunez. “Going up against a talented team like Lowell, who has been tops in the MVC and in the state, is a good sign for our [team].”
Lowell (14-3, 11-3 MVC) opened strong on senior night with star guard Alex Rivera (19 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists) distributing early.
Rivera led an 18-2 run from late in the second to early in the third quarter to give Lowell it’s biggest lead at 45-27. The UMass Lowell commit found sophomore Carlos Nunez for two critical 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to maintain a 65-52 advantage, but the Lancers (16-2, 12-1) spoiled a potential celebration for the home team.
Led by juniors Chris Ruiz (14 points) and Luis Reynoso (20 points), Lawrence went on a 15-2 run to tie the game at 67 in the final minute. After Rivera hit a pair of clutch free throws, Lawrence senior Jaden Castillo (15 points, 10 rebounds, 3 blocks) hit two of his 11 free throws to force overtime.
That’s when Rodriguez took over, scoring on an and-1 and finishing another basket in traffic to put Lawrence ahead for good.
“When the game is [on the line] my teammates trust me and they tell me to get the ball, so I listen to them,” said Rodriguez. “We are family. We stayed together and we wanted that win.”
Rodriguez finished with 19 points and three assists, including a key dish to Reynoso for a 3-pointer that made it a 67-65 game late in the fourth quarter.
“[Rodriguez] is a senior leader and he has a good head on his shoulders,” said Nunez. “He can control the game with his IQ. He knows when to attack, when to pull it out and when to distribute, and you saw that at the end [of the game].”Nate Weitzer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.