SOUTH KINGSTOWN â€” â€śWe stayed at a high level,â€ť deadpanned Tom â€śSaarâ€ť Sorrentine as his St. Raphael Academy players were hooting and hollering in the adjacent room.
In the same breath Sorrentine, donning a championship hat, added, â€śYou could never relax.â€ť
That in a nutshell summarizes SRAâ€™s journey back to the top of the Rhode Island high school basketball mountain. The opposition tried its best to rattle the Saints, but when it mattered most, Sorrentineâ€™s crew rose to the occasion.
A Tiverton outfit that had bulldozed every Division I team in its playoff path ran into an opponent that was more interested in making history than becoming another notch on the Tigersâ€™ belt. Saturday night belonged to St. Raphael, which can officially call itself a true state champion after nailing down a gritty, hard-fought win at URIâ€™s Ryan Center, 58-47. The game was tight throughout with the Saints clinging to a 46-45 lead with 2:19 remaining. SRA responded by surging toward the finish line, outscoring Tiverton by a 12-2 count the rest of the way.
Charles Correa served as the primary catalyst, scoring 15 of his game-high 21 points in the second half on his way to being named MVP of the 16-team state tournament and the Saintsâ€™ most outstanding player in the title tilt.
â€śIâ€™m only a sophomore, so this is big for me,â€ť smiled Correa, a replica net draped around his neck. â€śI was happy when they called my name. Plus I got the net too! It was crazy!â€ť
The championship is St. Raphaelâ€™s first since a run of four consecutive titles ended in 2002. In the near-decade that followed the Saints watched as Bishop Hendricken transformed itself into the stateâ€™s dominant hoops power. The Hawksâ€™ run of seven consecutive Division I titles came to an end last week against Tiverton, an upstart club whose memorable march toward the final game also consisted of wins against La Salle and Central.
â€śWe knew we had a good squad at the beginning of the year,â€ť said Sorrentine, who was bombarded with congratulatory handshakes during his postgame assessment.
Junior Cesar Mejia got it done on both ends of the floor with 13 points and 17 rebounds. He earned additional praise from Sorrentine after the St. Raphael swingman grounded Tiverton center Ben Bergandy in the second half. Bergandy compiled 15 points and shot 8-of-8 from the foul line in the first half as the Tigers took a 24-19 lead into halftime. The second stanza was an entirely different matter as Mejia and the Saints completely took Bergandy out of the picture (no made baskets and one missed free throw).
â€śHe was getting the ball and making plays and getting to the foul line,â€ť said Mejia about what led to the decision of him bodying Bergandy straight up. â€śWe didnâ€™t want him to even catch the ball because the whole offense was coming through him.â€ť
While Bergandy cooled off, Gunnar Bjornson, Tivertonâ€™s other primary scoring threat, shook off a zero-point first half â€“ sharing the credit for the sounds of silence there were senior Jazz Robinson and junior Terrence Manning â€“ to finish with 15 points on three field goals and nine free throws. Making sure that Bergandy and Bjornson were not in sync simultaneously was one of Sorrentineâ€™s chief worries coming in. The Tigersâ€™ duo teamed up for 66 points in Fridayâ€™s 77-74 double overtime verdict against Central.
â€śThey played outstanding defense the entire game,â€ť was the tip of the cap offered by Tiverton head coach Gerry Arcouette. â€śWhether it was Gunnar or Ben, they made it difficult for the two of them to get their points. Thatâ€™s a credit to Saar and those kids.â€ť
Saturdayâ€™s game followed the same script of previous SRA playoff contests, all of which ended in triumphant fashion. The Saints spent most of the first half struggling to find their bearings, this despite routinely creating multiple-shot possessions against the Tigersâ€™ smaller frontline.
â€śWe talked at halftime (Friday against North Providence) that (the Ryan Center) is not a shooterâ€™s court for us. Weâ€™re not going to make shots like we would back in our own gym,â€ť said Sorrentine, who charted 13 missed layups in the opening 16 minutes. â€śWe had to take it to the hoop.â€ť
The second half saw St. Raphael abandon its trigger-happy ways in favor of attacking the rim. That played right into Correaâ€™s hands. He along with Mejia and Trevor Vasey helped key a strong start as the Saints took their first lead (32-30) since midway through the first half on a layup by Mejia.
Things continued to look up for St. Raphael, especially when Correa ducked under the taller Bjornson for a scoop shot and a 40-34 advantage with 6:50 remaining. Tivertonâ€™s deficit grew to eight before summoning whatever energy it had left for one final push. Keep in mind the Tigers took the floor barely 24 hours removed from what had to have been a draining affair with the Knights.
Bjornson helped inch the Tigers to within one after crashing in for a hoop and a free throw. At that point it seemed this game was destined to go down to the wire, a fitting end to a tournament that saw numerous close calls. St. Raphael, however, had other ideas. Baskets by Davon Robertson (eight points, eight rebounds) and Correa extended SRAâ€™s lead to 50-45, the scores coming after a Tiverton turnover and a miss from deep by Bjornson.
St. Raphaelâ€™s fans could start to sense something special was afoot after Correa drained two free throws with 55 ticks to play. Tiverton continued to misfire and SRA continued to make foul shots, capping off a brilliant finish to a memorable postseason ride.
â€śThey wanted it,â€ť said Sorrentine. â€śThey were thinking about the game the whole ride down.â€ť
â€śWe stepped up when we had to,â€ť added Correa.
Furthered Vasey, the senior who contributed 11 points and seven rebounds to the championship clincher: â€śThis is the greatest feeling ever.â€ť
TIVERTON (47): Tyler Mulcahy 0 0-0 0, Ken Welchman 2 0-1 5, B.K. Kiser 2 0-0 4, Gunnar Bjornson 3 9-9 15, Alex Rosa 4 0-0 8, Ben Bergandy 3 8-9 15, Geoff McNally 0 0-2 0. Totals: 14 17-21 47.
ST. RAPHAEL (58): Cesar Mejia 4 4-5 13, Trevor Vasey 4 3-4 11, Jazz Robinson 2 0-0 4, Charles Correa 8 4-4 21, Davon Robertson 4 0-0 8, Terrence Manning 0 0-0 0, Jordan Peguero 0 0-0 0, Ben Pillsbury 0 1-1 1. Totals: 22 12-14 58.
Halftime: T 24-19.
Three-point field goals: T 1 (Ben Bergandy); SRA 2 (Charles Correa, Cesar Mejia).
Austin Van Bemmelen (North Providence), Robert Lewis (Central), Ben Bergandy (Tiverton), Gunnar Bjornson (Tiverton), Trevor Vasey (St. Raphael).
Charles Correa (St. Raphael).
Players of the Game
Ben Bergandy (Tiverton), Charles Correa (St. Raphael).