Wednesday’s Division 1 North semifinal between Merrimack Valley Conference rivals Central Catholic and Lowell was originally scheduled to be held at Central’s relatively small gymnasium.
But since approximately 300 fans were turned away last Saturday when Central hosted Cambridge, Raiders coach John Walsh knew that this premier matchup demanded a bigger venue.
The teams rewarded the nearly 3,000 fans who turned out in support of their teams at Lawrence High with a thrilling back-and-forth affair, as Central eventually earned a 67-61 victory.
The Raiders (21-3) will face top-seeded Lynn English (20-2) in a sectional final Saturday at Tsongas Arena.
“I’m glad we got to play [at Lawrence],” said Walsh. “It’s good that we were able to get to a neutral site the way it should be. We shouldn’t play neutral site games at home. It’s an easy fix. It’s fair for the kids. The kids want to play in this environment.”
Lowell (21-4) got off to a hot start with junior Carlos Nunez (team-high 22 points) burying three triples in the opening frame. Central responded with a brilliant defensive effort in the second quarter, forcing 11 turnovers to take a 30-29 halftime lead.
After the lead changed hands nine times in the opening minutes of the third, Central went on a 14-2 run to take a 53-42 lead into the fourth quarter.
Senior Kevin Constant (18 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals, 4 blocks) was a force on both ends of the floor, but it was the sudden awakening of Jalen Aquino that helped the Raiders separate. Aquino scored all 14 of his points in the second half, including a pair of deep trifectas in the third.
Eventually, Lowell cut the lead to 57-55 with a little more than two minutes remaining, but Constant answered for Central.
The MVC’s MVP hit a pull-up 3-pointer to expand the Raiders lead to 60-55 with 1:55 remaining. Clutch free throw shooting from junior George Smith (22 points) and Aquino sealed the victory.
“We knew it was going to be a good one, right away,” said Constant. “Coach always said it was going to be a game of runs, and we knew we had to have the last run.”
For Walsh, taking over a young Central team last year has resulted in a few growing pains, but this year’s group continued to exceed his expectations.
“To be honest, I didn’t know what to think [in the first practice this season],” Walsh said. “We didn’t have a lot coming back. It’s a credit to the kids just getting better and better every game. The coaching staff did a great job, and look where they are now.”
Division 1 North
Lynn English 66, Andover 43 — Back on his old court, junior guard Jarnel Guzman poured in 28 points as the top-seeded Bulldogs (20-2) ousted the No. 12 Golden Warriors (14-9) in a semifinal at St. John’s Prep.
English led 29-24 at the break before coach Antonio Anderson offered encouragement to Guzman, who attended Prep as a sophomore.
“He trusted his teammates to give him some shots and then was able to get us going,” said the coach.
Led by Guzman, the Bulldogs outscored Andover, 37-19, in the second half. Kyle Rocker Fielding led the Golden Warriors with 14 points.
Division 3 North
Dracut 63, St. Mary’s 59 — Freshman Adrian Torres nailed two three-pointers for the 12th-seeded Middies (11-10) to seal an upset over the top-seeded Spartans (21-3) at Wakefield High. Dracut advanced to the D3 North final against Weston on Saturday at 12:15 at the Tsongas Center in Lowell.
Weston 65, Shawsheen 61 — The 10th-seeded Wildcats (13-10) hit the No. 3 Rams (19-4) with a 24-7 blitz in the fourth quarter to rally from a 13-point deficit at Burlington High and advance to the sectional final against 12th-seeded Dracut Saturday at the Tsongas Center.
Division 4 North
KIPP Academy 68, Lowell Catholic 66 — Trailing by 12 with 3:28 in the third quarter, the second-seeded Panthers (17-5) charged back to clip the Crusaders (16-6) at Woburn High, advancing to Friday’s final against Pope John at Tewksbury High School.
Division 4 South
Cohasset 53, Cape Cod Academy 50 — The sixth-seeded Skippers (18-5) survived a rocky fourth quarter, using three late free-throws to upset second-seeded Cape Cod Academy in a semifinal at Taunton High.
Cohasset will make its fourth appearance in the South final in 10 years.
Up six points at the half, the Skippers used a spirited run at the start of the third quarter to pull ahead by double figures.
‘‘We talked in the locker room and said we have to go out and do what we do, run the ball and score,’’ said Cohasset coach Bo Ruggiero. The Seahawks (19-4) chipped away with four 3-pointers in the fourth quarter coupled with fullcourt pressure. ‘‘We’ve worked on our press offense but it looked like our young kids played young, said Ruggiero. CCA tied the game with under a minute to play on a jumper from Devin Daniels, but missed go-ahead shots on four occasions as well as two at the buzzer.
Abington 68, Bishop Connolly 53 — Senior Bryson Andrews scored 29 points, including a scorching 14 points in the opening eight minutes and highlighted by a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give the Green Wave (18-7) a 9-point first-quarter lead in their D4 semifinal win over Bishop Connolly at Taunton High.
“He’s our guy,” said Abington coach Peter Serino. “He got us going so the other guys could get their feet wet.”
Bishop Connolly (15-4) pulled withing five midway through the fourth quarter, but four straight turnovers resulted in seven points for Abington, which was also sparked by sophomore Matt Maguire, who hit five timely 3-pointers that extinguished Cougar runs.
“It felt like every one was one we needed,” said Serino. “He took advantage of the moment.”
Eighth-seeded Abington will take on sixth-seeded Cohasset, a South Shore League rival, in the sectional final on Saturday night at 6:45 p.m. in Taunton.