With Life Center Academy making a final push for a victory, Westtown had a number of options to carry them to the finish line.
This time, it was Jared Nickens that took over.
Nickens, the senior wing, took it upon himself to pull off a four-point play and grab the momentum right back in a 71-61 win over the Warriors.
“It’s nice when you rebound, it’s nice when you dribble but when you can make a four-point play off of a three-point shot, it’s pretty special,” Westtown head coach Seth Berger told CoBL. “He’s pretty good, Jared played well today. He had five rebounds in the first half, he wasn’t scoring but he made huge buckets and huge plays when we needed it.”
The future Maryland Terrapin only scored five first-half points, but finished the game with 19 points, seven rebounds and four steals. Westtown MVP Jair Bolden added 22 points, five boards and three steals.
Life Center was paced by team MVP Malik Ellison with 22 points and five rebounds. Senior guard Rip Engel, formerly of C.R. North, scored 10 points while hitting three three-pointers.
Both teams, which featured their own 7-footers in George Papagiannis (Westtown) and Trayvon Reed (Life Center, committed to Maryland), slowed the game in the first quarter to see what their opponent had to offer. That slow start ended in the second half, thanks to Bolden.
The sophomore guard opened the quarter with eight straight points to give Westtown a six-point lead and ended with 13 in the quarter to counteract Life Center’s offense.
But while Bolden was maintaining the Westtown lead by putting points on the board, it was the little things that stuck out to his coach the most.
“I think Jair was in control of the game from start to finish,” Berger said. “I thought as good as Malik is and as well as Malik played, there was one person in charge on the court and it was Jair. It wasn’t just scoring, he only had three turnovers, including one where he stepped out of bounds. His turnovers were low, he rebounded the ball, he defended. This is the beginning of the player Jair can be, he’s a really special player.”
“My teammates were doing a great job of finding me,” Bolden added. “We have a lot of great threats on the team that are very well-known in the nation like Jared and George. When they’re hitting shots and playing like they were today, all of those offensive opportunities are just there for you.”
After a first half of doing everything but score, Nickens started to find his rhythm and put points on the board. After a five-point first half, Nickens scored six in the third quarter alone and helped Papagiannis get into his role as well. The duo combined for 11 of the Moose’ 15 points in the third quarter to help Westtown hold a seven-point lead heading into the final quarter.
“I came on strong in the second half,” Nickens said. “In the beginning, I just focused on rebounding since my offense wasn’t on yet. I tried to do other things to keep the lead and at the end of the day we got the win.”
That lead evaporated quickly with two Engel three-pointers that brought the Westtown lead down to one point. Then Nickens hit his momentum-swinging shot.
“It was big for us as a team,” Nickens. “We all had a smile on our face after that so it was a positive change for the game.”
The four-point play was the first of eight straight Westtown points that built a cushion between the Moose and the Warriors. Then Papagiannis, a possible NBA lottery pick in a few years, showed off his potential to finally put away Life Center for good.
The Moose are no strangers to close games. Earlier in the season, Westtown travelled west to participate in some holiday showcases. Even with the plethora of Division I talent that Life Center had to offer, Berger said that experience has the Moose focused whenever their games come down to the final minutes.
“Being in a close game with four or five minutes to go, we’re pretty comfortable with it. Our kids do the best they can, the outcomes going to be what the outcomes going to be. I was really pleased with how low our turnover count was. Instead of getting tight trying to win a close game, our kids really tried to score the ball. What I told them was ‘62’. Before the game, I told them before the game they have to get to 62 to win the game. I don’t think they can get over 62.
“I didn’t think we’d get to 71, but it’s good.”