PAWTUCKET â€“ Tuesdayâ€™s clash pitting combatants North Providence and Shea was one of those back and forth, knock down, drag out affairs that you couldn't take your eyes off, and for the longest time it seemed and felt like the game could go either way.
Despite the stakes being high â€“ the regular-season division title was on the line at â€śThe Cageâ€ť â€“ both head coaches, N.P.â€™s Paul Rizzo and Matt Pita of Shea, took a moment at 6:57 of the second half to engage in some playful ribbing.
As the two-person officiating crew huddled at midcourt, deciding whether to saddle the Cougarsâ€™ Rob Hazard with an offensive foul or hit the Raidersâ€™ Eli Itkin with a blocking call, Rizzo walked past the scorerâ€™s table where Pita was standing. A few words were exchanged, some smiles cracked before Rizzo gently tapped Pita on the chest before returning to his own bench.
Ultimately the call went in favor of Shea with Hazard picking up the personal. Instead of capitalizing on the ruling of good fortune from the zebras, the Raiders could only watch as the Cougars raised their game down the home stretch in an eventual 83-74 victory that clinched back-to-back Division II-Central titles for North Providence.
The biggest item that stands out from a Shea standpoint is free-throw shooting. The home team missed 10-of-13 tries in the second half, finishing just 5-of-17 from the not-so charity stripe.
â€śThatâ€™s the game right there,â€ť Pita noted. â€śPlus they (meaning N.P.) hit some big shots.â€ť
Hazard was one of three Cougars to pop for 20 points, the seniorâ€™s 27 serving as the gameâ€™s high mark. Classmate Austin Van Bemmelen was his usual pinpoint self, stroking five 3-pointers for 21 points. Center Jake DiDominco, who drew the tough assignment of matching up with Sheaâ€™s Michael Neal, popped for 20 points with 14 coming in the second half.
Speaking of Neal, the athletic senior went for 17 points and eight rebounds despite battling foul trouble all night long. Pita could only watch as Neal picked up his fourth foul with 10:15 remaining, a development that left the Shea coach little choice but to sit his top low post threat for as long as the situation permitted. That turned out to be the 5:49 mark, when Neal checked back in. Ironically, his re-entry into the game was under similar circumstances as to when he departed â€“ with Shea clinging to a one-point lead.
Even with Neal back, the visiting Cougars (17-2, II-Central) were just about set to hit their stride. A three from the left wing by Van Bemmelen made it a 67-63 lead for N.P. when Pita called a timeout with 4:55 to play. The Raiders responded with Neal cleaning up a miss to make it a two-point game. Soon his night would come to an abrupt end. Attempting to make a play on a streaking Hazard, Neal picked up his fifth and final foul, his disqualification coming with 4:11 still to go.
What had been a closely-knit contest soon opened up in North Providenceâ€™s favor. The Cougars fashioned a quick-hitting 7-2 run that put the visitors up 74-67 at 1:54. The Raiders were able to move to within three (74-71) after Jordy Brito (11 points, eight assists) hit 1-of-2 at the line with 50.6 ticks remaining. Refusing to step off the gas pedal, North Providence assembled an 8-zip surge that culminated with a 3-point play by Hazard. A game that had been close for so much of the way finally saw a team take control when it mattered most. The Cougars were that team, playing before audience that was heavily-laden with North Providence followers.
Both coaches were pleased to have taken part in such an excruciating 32-minute game on the eve of the state playoffs, which get underway this Friday.
â€śThis was a huge win for momentum purposes,â€ť noted N.P.â€™s Rizzo. â€śEven if we got beat, we wanted momentum heading into Friday.â€ť
Added Pita: â€śIt was a great high school basketball game.â€ť
The Raiders led the entire first half on their way to taking a 38-34 lead into recess. Junior Eli Itkin (19 points) served as the primary catalyst, knocking down four treys on his way to amassing 14 points. The second half was a different story as Itkin had to contend with Hazard, who sliced the Raiderâ€™s production down to five points in the second stanza.
North Providence shook off a 1-of-8 start from the field to stay close by Sheaâ€™s side. The visitors got to within one (25-24) and two (36-34) but each time the Raiders were able to stem the tide.
The white-knuckle affair continued as the second half progressed. North Providence took its first lead at 44-43 after Mike Ferrante hit a free throw at 12:47. There was a four-minute stretch that featured 10 lead changes, a stat that tells you how close this actually was until the Cougars started to find the rhythm and range.