Division 1 Boys' Basketball State Final | SJ Prep 72, SJ (S) 57

Haladyna finds third gear

Junior powers St. John’s Prep

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By Anthony Gulizia
Globe Correspondent / March 20, 2011

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WORCESTER — Trying to predict who will lead the St. John’s Prep basketball team in scoring is like trying to predict New England weather — impossible.

Steve Haladyna finished with a game-high 29 points to lift the Eagles (25-1) over St. John’s of Shrewsbury, 72-57, to capture the Division 1 state championship at DCU Center last night.

The junior guard exploded for 17 points in the third quarter and single-handedly drained the life out of the Pioneers.

“We made it a point at halftime to get out and run,’’ Haladyna said. “We wanted to make it a fast-paced game and just push it on them and get fast-break points.’’

Haladyna’s run started when he opened the half with a jumper, followed by a 3-pointer to give the Eagles a 33-21 lead.

With 2:11 remaining in the half, Haladyna knocked down another 3-pointer to give his team a 52-34 lead.

Senior Richard Rodgers (26 points), tried to keep the Pioneers close, but Haladyna refused to let them.

“[Haladyna] is a big-time player,’’ Eagles coach Sean Connolly said. “When people key in on Pat [Connaughton], he’s tough. He has an array of shots, he can hit 3-pointers and floaters, and he’s just a tough cover.’’

Connaughton, who finished with 25 points and 12 rebounds, was satisfied with his performance, but all his praise was for his teammate.

“He’s been the second-hand guy ever since he came up,’’ Connaughton said. “And that’s really what sparks us — he’s another weapon.

“I told him coming out of the locker room at halftime that it’s going to be the last time I play with him in a St. John’s Prep uniform, so let’s make it a memorable one.’’

In the first half, Connaughton scored 13 points to help the Prep to a 28-21 lead going into the break.

Ken Harrington hit a jumper to give the Pioneers a 17-16 lead with 6:30 remaining in the half, but Haladyna sparked a 6-0 run to put the Prep up.

Rodgers, who scored 12 first-half points, drained a 3-pointer while getting knocked down, sending him to the line to convert a 4-point play.

However, the Eagles put together another 6-0 run to end the half, sparked by a Connaughton 3-pointer.

But Connolly knew that if he wanted to win, he needed to make adjustments.

“We wanted to make this a track meet and get it up and down,’’ Connolly said. “The slow-paced game is their advantage and we wanted to run more and get the tempo of the game up.’’

The Central Mass. champs, who went 21-4 but lost for the second year in a row in the title game, were playing without senior forward Ryan Kelley, who tore his ACL early in the tournament.

“They went to a half-court trap, got a couple quick steals, and opened the game up,’’ said the Pioneers’ Bob Foley, the winningest coach in the state (775).

“The press hurt us, but it came back to Ryan Kelley. You take your toughest player and replace him with a freshman and a sophomore on the other wing, it’s a real challenge for those two kids.’’

With the win, Connaughton closed out a storied career. With 5.2 seconds left in the game, the Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the Year went to the line and drained two free throws to seal the win.

“To be honest, I was hoping to get a dunk, but they denied me,’’ Connaughton joked. “I couldn’t ask for a better way to end my career [than with a victory in the state title game]. This is what we came out to do as a team.’’