PAWTUCKET â€“ With the game and an undefeated league record hanging in the balance, the Saints of St. Raphael Academy rose to the occasion, playing like the state champions they are.
Locked in a serious tussle with a determined and feisty bunch from Central High, St. Raphael made enough winning plays down the stretch to waltz out of the Wellness Center with a hard-fought and most satisfying 57-54 verdict. The Saints now own the distinction as the last remaining unbeaten team in Division I at 6-0 while the Knights suffer their first league loss at 5-1.
As usual the Saintsâ€™ 1-2 dynamic punch of senior Cesar Mejia and Charles Correa shouldered the burden. Correa ended up leading all scorers with 19 points while working extra hard on the backboards to rip down 10 rebounds. Mejia, who prior to the game was presented a plaque commemorating his recent induction into the 1,000-point club, finished with 18 points and eight rebounds.
Central, which missed 11 free throws in what ended up being a rock fight of a game that came down to the final possession, received 16 points from Jarrell Lawson and 12 points apiece from Daniel Mendez and Raikwon Rodrigues.
Tuesdayâ€™s game between two undefeated teams was a far cry from the first meeting back on Dec. 9, which saw the Saints and Knights engage in a serious track meet. SRA went on to capture the non-league tilt, 80-74.
â€śI thought we played better defense (last night). I think the first time, neither team knew what the other had and it was more or less a shootout,â€ť stated SRA head coach Tom â€śSaarâ€ť Sorrentine. â€śThis was more of a defensive game than an offensive game.â€ť
It was also one that went right down to the bitter end. Neither contending team refused to back down as the game read 47-45 in favor of the Saints with just over five minutes remaining, setting the stage for a much-anticipated finish.
With Correa at the controls, the Saints ripped over four points to give them some breathing room at 51-45. Correaâ€™s bid for a layup came up short but Abdou Bah proved to be in the right spot, sticking back the miss for two of his seven second-half points. Correa then impacted the game with his quick hands, coming up away with a deflected pass that resulted in a clear path to the basket for another duce.
With the Wellness Center rocking, the crowd smelling blood in the water, the Knights fought back behind two free throws by Lawson and a 3-pointer by Mendez that came in front of his teamâ€™s bench. That hushed the crowd and brought Central back to almost even at 51-50 with the scoreboard flashing 2:47.
It remained a one points after Mejia missed the front end of a 1-and-1 and Lawson came up empty on a layup that would have given the Knights their first lead of the night. A follow by Correa put the Saints up three before Central turned the ball over for the 19th time, a miscue that paved the way for some more magic by the Saint in a No. 3 jersey.
Showing complete faith in his teammate, Correa started to drive and with the Central defense collapsing toward him, hit a cutting Malcolm Williams for an easy score. The lead now stood at 55-50 with 1:52 to play.
â€śWe told Malcolm that it was his game. Obviously theyâ€™re going to concentrate on Charles and Cesar. There was a big gap that he needed to take and he did,â€ť Sorrentine said. â€śHe did his job.â€ť
Williams complimented the efforts of Correa and Mejia with 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting and five rebounds. The senior guard scored again off of a Correa feed after Mendez missed a three from the top of the key, the make good for a 57-50 lead.
The Knights, which did not register a field goal in the final three minutes, got four free throws from Lawson in the final minute to tighten things up. The final two makes came after the forward was fouled while attempting a 3-ball â€“ which nearly went in â€“ with 2.5 seconds remaining.
The door remained open after Correa missed a 1-and-1. Central grabbed the rebound with exactly one second remaining. Forced to go the length of the floor after calling a timeout, the Knightsâ€™ desperation bid fell way short with Lawson hitting the top of basketâ€™s support as the final horn went off.
â€śThis was the most important game of the season,â€ť Mejia said. â€śIt was a battle to the finish.â€ť
To be honest, this was a definitive game of the home team keeping the visitors at bay by any means necessary. Protecting a 16-12 lead with 4:26 to play in the first half, the Saints behind Correa and Mejia ripped off a 12-6 lead to go up 28-18 with 90 seconds remaining. The gameâ€™s next six points belonged to the visiting Knights, a surge that continued at the onset of the second half to make it a 28-26 game.
Tied at 29-all, the Saints had a fortunate bounce go their way on a basket interference call that gave Mejia two more points. The swingman was also fouled on the play, making the free throw to break the deadlock at 12:10.
It proved to be anyoneâ€™s game, but when push came to shove, the Saints shined when it mattered most.
CENTRAL (54): Daniel Mendez 4 1-2 12, Jarrell Lawson 3 10-15 16, Brownell Dennis 1 1-2 3, Jeremy Guillen 0 0-0 0, Jerelle Washington 2 0-1 4, Steven-Kolawole Ajao 3 1-2 7, Raikwon Rodrigues 6 0-2 12, Fabio Pimental 0 0-0 0. Totals: 19 13-24 54.
ST. RAPHAEL (57): Charles Correa 9 0-1 19, Cesar Mejia 7 2-3 18, Davon Robertson 0 0-0 0, Jordan Peguero 0 0-0 0, Abdou Bah 3 1-3 7, Malcolm Williams 5 0-0 10, Kaseem Sams 1 1-4 3, Zach Mays 0 0-0 0, Darshaun Vargas 0 0-0 0. Totals: 25 4-11 57.
Halftime: SRA 28-24.
Three-point field goals: C 3 (Daniel Mendez 3); SRA 3 (Cesar Mejia 2, Charles Correa).