PAWTUCKET â€“ Tolman Highâ€™s â€śsleeping giantâ€ť of a basketball team is still sleeping.
The Tigers slumbered through the opening eight minutes of Tuesday nightâ€™s clash with Division II-Central leader North Providence, falling behind 27-8 before essentially playing the Cougars even for the rest of the game, finally losing by an 87-72 margin.
North Providence saw a 15-point halftime lead shrink to 10 with 10:30 left in the game. The Cougars hardly blinked. They just took the ball to the basket and got fouled, making 24 of 31 free throws in the game.
â€śWe made some outside shots when they went into a zone,â€ť N.P. coach Paul Rizzo said after his team upped its division record to 14-2. â€śTolman is always a tough game for us. Our game plan was to create some mismatches. We have five players who can score and that balance really is important to what we do.â€ť
On a night when Austin Van Bemmelen â€“ N.P.â€™s top offensive threat â€“ settled for 14 points, the Cougars got 26 points from senior guard Mike Ferrante, and 26 more from junior center Jacob DiDomenico.
The Cougars focused their defensive efforts on Tolmanâ€™s Juan Velez, who averages 20 points per game and can go off on scoring binges when left unguarded. Velez, heavily guarded, missed his first seven shots from the field and finished with 18 points.
Tolman coach Mike Kayata chose to start senior Seny Samb over 6-foot-6 center Jonathan Percy. It was Senior Night for the Tigers, which played into the decision, as did one other factor.
â€śSeny is a better defender,â€ť Kayata explained. â€śWe wanted Seny to guard Rob Hazard (who finished with just 11 points). We put Justin Zetina on DiDomenico.â€ť
Zetina ran into foul trouble while guarding DiDomenico, picking up his fourth foul with 12:35 left in the game. The 6-foot-3 forward finished the night with 13 points.
North Providence made at least seven baskets off in-bounds plays, adding another layer of versatility to their offensive arsenal.
â€śWe have four of five plays we like to run off the in-bounds pass,â€ť Rizzo admitted. Two of those plays seemed to fine Ferrante and DiDomenico, who would accept baseline passes and spin hard to the hoop for layups and free throws.
Percy entered the game with Tolman trailing 20-6. At this point, the Tigers had already turned the ball over eight times in the first four minutes. They would settle down and finish with 22, just a few above their normal average.
From their nadir of 27-8, the Tigers fought back as Velez found Zetina and Percy with nifty passes that were caught and deposited in the basket. One of Tolmanâ€™s problems with the basketball is their interior players have trouble catching the ball. Also, North Providenceâ€™s defense deflected a lot of interior passes, resulting in turnovers.
Zetina scored 11 of his 13 points in the first half. Percy got four points, including a resounding dunk that ignited the home crowd for a few seconds, bringing Tolman within 27-17 after a 9-0 run.
Hazard went hard to the hoop for a layup to end that surge. The Cougars got two three-pointers from Ferrante and one from Van Bemmelen as they built their halftime lead of 43-28.
The Tigers fell behind 46-28 when Dillon McCluskie dropped a trey to start the second half. Suddenly, though, the Tigers started creating turnovers, with Velez stealing the ball twice and going the length of the court for layups. The junior guard also hit a three while scoring nine points in the first five minutes of the second half.
Tolman was still in the game with 6:11 left, trailing 68-59 when Velez went to the line for two free throws. He missed them both and Ferrante drilled another three, a dagger, to enlarge his teamâ€™s lead to 71-59. The Cougars went back up 83-67, seemingly reminding the Tigers who they were dealing with.
â€śNorth Providence is tough,â€ť Kayata said after talking to his players after the game ended. â€śBarring the disaster of the first five minutes, I thought we played them pretty close.â€ť
How can Tolman, now 8-8 in Division II, close the gap on the Cougars and other elite teams? It is a pertinent question because the Tigers have qualified for the state open tournament that begins on Feb. 24.
â€śWe have to play better defense,â€ť Kayata said, â€śand we need to get some shots in our half-court offense. We have to start catching the ball and shooting it.â€ť
Sounds simple enough.