DANVERS — The St. John’s Prep boys basketball team went into its last game of the regular season Tuesday afternoon needing a win to stay alive and qualify for the state tournament. The Eagles came through, battling back from a 12-point deficit to defeat Haverhill 61-52 at Pat Connaughton Court.
“This was like our first tournament game,” St. John’s coach John Dullea said. “We have to win the game or we are done. We had our backs against the wall but like they had been all year, it’s a pretty resilient group. In the second half we came out with much more of a sense of urgency and our defensive effort picked up. I think they had just 18 points total in the second half.”
The Eagles were led by plenty of solid performances including a game-high 15 points from Liam Dunfee (seven rebounds). Will Batchelder (14 points) and Aidan Callahan (10) also hit key shots. Matt Duchemin had a solid all-around game with five points, six rebounds and four steals.
“Offensively we missed a lot of shots,” Dullea said. “Uncharacteristically some things that usually work for us didn’t work today. But one thing that can always be there is our defensive effort and rebounding so we needed that.”
Both teams went back-and-forth in the first quarter. An early steal by Callahan and basket by Duchemin got the Eagles started on a 3-0 run. But Haverhill bounced right back to take 6-5 lead. From there the first quarter saw four lead changes before both teams were even at 15-15. Brandon Donald (12 points) hit a key 3-pointer late in the first to help Haverhill take a 20-17 lead into the second quarter.
Donald stayed hot and got Haverhill off to a fast start in the second with another deep 3-pointer. The Eagles had plenty of chances to score in the paint but just couldn’t get a shot to fall when they needed it. Meanwhile Haverhill hit several key shots, including two 3-pointers from Angel Burgos to jump out to a 33-21 lead.
After a time out with a few minutes left in the half, the Eagles finally found some much-needed offense. Dunfee and Peter Holmes (three points, three rebounds) each hit a 3-pointer and Noah Thomas (eight points, six rebounds) converted an and-one to end the half and cut the Haverhill lead to 34-30.
“That run going into the second half was huge,” Dullea said. “You go from double digits to now you’re only down by four. That’s one or two possessions and we got right back into the game. That was huge. We didn’t play well the first half but the scoreboard didn’t really reflect that. Getting it down to a four point game gave us momentum. The kids finally understood what we needed to do to win the second half.”
The Eagles kept that momentum going in the second half. Callahan hit an early 3-pointer to cut the deficit to one point and he added a pair of baskets later in the third quarter to put St. John’s ahead 41-39. Batchelder added another 3-pointer at the end of the third to help extend the Eagles lead to 46-39.
The Eagles got their lead up to a much as 10 points thanks to another Batchelder three before Haverhill made a small run. Haverhill got as close as four but the Eagles stepped it up on defense in the final minutes and Dunfee and Callahan each added three late free throws to seal the win.
The Eagles (10-10) will hope to benefit from playing in a must-win game to end the season moving forward in the tournament.
“We won’t find out who we play until Friday,” Dullea said. “We played a very challenging schedule and put ourselves in tournament-type games all season so we should be prepared for this. Whoever it is we will have to go to their place and they earned that home game. We will have to go on the road and get a win, but we will do the things we do well and hopefully come out with a win. We’ll go in there fighting.”