AMHERST — The Central boys basketball team has been patiently waiting for Levi White to crack out of his shell. The senior wingmanhas been an important piece for the Golden Eagles all season, and Friday night, he sparked his team when it needed him most.
The Golden Eagles battled back in the third quarter after trailing the No. 2 PutnamBeavers for the majority of the first half, and only holding a one-point lead heading into the fourth. The Golden Eagles then surged on a 9-2 run that was finished off with a White slam dunk on a fast break.
The entire Central bench stood on its feet.
“I always look to spark my team whatever way I can,” White said. “That moment was just my moment. I saw an open lane, I just took it for advantage, and try to help my team the best way I can.”
The Golden Eagles did not look back following the White jam and pushed past the Beavers to take home a 75-66 victory, earning them the Western Massachusetts Division I championship. Central will now head to the state tournament where it will have a rematch with the Central Mass. Division I champion, Franklin.
The game is set to take place on Monday, March 12 at Worcester State University, tipping off at 7:30 p.m.
Despite the Golden Eagles jumping out to a 6-0 lead to begin the contest, Putnam took control. The Beavers applied immense pressure on the Central backcourt and forced a multitude of turnovers to give them the momentum.
“Just to take care of the ball,” Central head coach Darryl Denson said on the first half turnovers. “Don’t let them speed us up, play our game — Shep (Putnam head coach William Shepard) always has his kid ready defensively — that’s his thing.
In addition, the Beavers’ lead guard Milan Harrison got hot from the field and knocked down three 3-pointers to finish the half with 13 points, leading all scorers at the break. Putnam set up Harrison well using off-ball screens to give him just enough space to get his shot off.
Harrison went on to end his night with a team-high 19 points.
Justin Feliciano kept the Golden Eagles a float in the first half with his active play on both ends of the floor, scoring 11 points in the first half alone and used his lateral speed to defend the Putnam talented backcourt. Feliciano went on to score a total of 15 points on the night.
However, Central was struggling defensively in the post with junior forward Hason Ward getting into foul trouble early. Denson, however, managed his premier shot blocker’s minutes throughout the game based on matchups on the floor. Ward did not foul out of the game until there was 26 seconds left on the game clock.
Ward was critical to the second half success by grabbing boards, blocking shots and even tallying two monstrous dunks on the offensive end. On his first slam, Ward cradled the ball while soaring from one side of the basket to the other for the reverse. The second came off a lob pass from point guard Anthony Kelley.
When Ward was off the floor down the stretch, White filled in.
“We knew we could match up size wise,” Denson said. “Because we have a lot of big kids that can play. The thing was the position — that offensive person going in and doing the offense.
“Levi absolutely gave us something that we’ve been asking him to do for years. ’Levi, just play.’ That’s all we asked him to do is play — he played."
Kelley, who had trouble against the Putnam pressure in the first half, settled down and used defense to turn it around. He played the controlled basketball that he has showcased all season in his senior campaign with the Golden Eagles. Kelley was able to use his quick first step off the dribble to breeze past defenders and finish at the basket.
Kelley ended the night with 17 points.
“Mentally, I had to tell myself to refocus,” Kelley said. “I brought the guys in and told them that it was all going to start on defense. After defense started, offense came easy for us.”
Central’s star forward Jorge Torres was quiet at the start of the game, missing his first couple shot attempts, but when the Golden Eagles gave him space to work, it was difficult for the Beavers to stop him. The senior finished with a game-high 25 points and came up with a slew of rebounds.
Along with Harrison’s notable performance, Jalen Bruce tallied 16 points along with Jalen McCoy chipping in 12 points.
The Golden Eagles now have a tall task with Franklin on the agenda. After falling to the Panthers in dramatic fashion at the MassMutual Center last year, Central will re-focus its attention and key in on the mission it set in place at the beginning of the season.
“I know coach is going to have us ready,” White said. “We are going to watch some film, look at what we did wrong, what we did right, how we can capitalized and we are just going to be prepared.”