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CENTRAL FALLS â€” As a coach you want to see your team pushed to the extreme, especially with the playoffs not too far off in the distance.
Thursday night saw Shea and Central Falls trade big shots and big plays with neither side backing down. The difference in the end was the steely-eyed play of Jordy Brito, the Raiders senior coming up with a series of clutch plays in the closing minutes in what amounted to a hard-fought 63-57 victory over the host Warriors.
Brito finished with a game-best 21 points, scoring nine of his teamâ€™s final 11 points. His finest moment came with 43 seconds remaining and Shea doing its very best to protect a 58-56 lead. Seeing daylight, Brito unleashed one of his trademark floaters that rolled around the cylinder before dropping in for a four-point Raider lead.
Shea then sealed the deal on the defensive end as 6-foot-6 senior Michael Neal jumped out to cover Steven Vazquez just as the C.F. senior was about to get up a 3-point shot. Neal was able to deflect the attempt with the Raiders coming up with the live ball that transformed the final 25 seconds into a free throw shooting contest with Shea hitting 3-of-4 while C.F. was 1-for-3.
â€śWe executed our game plan as well as we could and we got out of here with a win,â€ť said a much-relieved Shea head coach Matt Pita.
Neal shook off a one-point effort in the opening 16 minutes to finish with 12 points and 13 rebounds. He threw down a vicious two-handed dunk at 8:07 of the second half that moved the Raiders to within a point (41-40), a play that also brought the lively and energetic crowd to its collective feet.
The Warriors (7-8, Division II-North) were able to weather Hurricane Neal as the home team continued to stick close to the Raiders. The contest featured 15 lead changes with Shea owning the upper hand at halftime (25-24 after trailing 20-16) and over the final 3:06 after Brito swished a pair of free throws to break a 54-54 deadlock.
Central Falls was surprisingly right there with Shea (12-3, Division II-Central) after one half was in the books despite missing chief low post threat Ryan Murray, who sat the final 4:07 after picking up his third foul. The Warriors also got just two points from leading scorer Clifton Johnson while committing 11 first-half turnovers.
The moxie and determination show by Vazquez was certainly a plus. After knocking down a three-ball from the corner with Neal quickly closing in, Vazquez came up with a steal at midcourt and subsequent layup to put the Warriors up four with 3:18 left. Vazquez scored 10 of his team-best 16 points in the opening stanza while Johnson recovered in the second half to finish with 10 points.
The Raiders scored the first hoop of the second half before the tide turned in the Warriorsâ€™ favor. Aided by five Raider turnovers, the home team ripped off 11 straight points to quickly move ahead, 35-27, with 11:58 remaining. The surge helped lesson the blow of once again losing Murray after he was called for his fourth foul at 12:19.
The Raiders quickly took advantage of Murrayâ€™s absence as Neal began scoring at will. Whether he was finishing at the rim or drawing fouls, all C.F. head coach Brian Crookes could do is sit and be patient until the time came to re-insert Murray.
â€śTo their credit they went inside to Neal, one possession after another,â€ť Crookes said. â€śWe could not match up with him. That was a rough period for us.â€ť
C.F. continued to withstand the body blows as two Murray free throws gave the Warriors a 48-45 lead with 6:01 to go. A 3-point make by Brito â€“ it would have been a 4-point play had he made the free throw â€“ tied the game with Sheaâ€™s next possession featuring Brito feeding Tito DoCouto (four points) for an easy score that put the Raiders up 52-50.
Two free throws by Johnson and a score by Vazquez enabled C.F. to retake the lead, 52-50. It was Sheaâ€™s turn to respond with Nathan Lopes collecting two of his nine points â€“ all coming in the second half â€“ and a floater by Brito enabling the Raiders to take back the lead, 54-52, with 3:36 to play.
â€śThose little momentum swings add up,â€ť noted Crookes.
â€śEvery punch they gave us, we found a counterpunch,â€ť Pita said.
The contest featured 42 fouls with each side whistled for 21. At times the game seemed to suffer as the fouls started to pile up â€“ C.F. was shooting the double bonus from 5:07 of the second half until the final horn. The players on both sides, however, showed great restraint in not allowing the avalanche of calls lead to something even more detrimental.
â€śYou can get frustrated when thereâ€™s no flow to the game,â€ť Crookes said. â€śKids are out there standing and waiting and looking.â€ť