CUMBERLAND --– With the new year just a few days away, Tolman High coach Mike Kayata has plenty of reasons to smile.
After a slow start, his talented Tigershas been on somewhat of a roll, winning their last four games. The latest of those victories occurred on Wednesday night as Kayata saw his Tigers hold off a strong rally by Lincoln High to capture the annual Cumberland/Lincoln Boys & Girls Club Holiday Tournament with a thrilling 61-58 decision at the Wellness Center.
Three players scored in double digits for the Tigers with Nkosi Scott tossing in a game-high 17 points, Jeremy Graca netting 15 and Tournament MVP Elijiah Wiggins adding 10.
“Everybody contributed again tonight,” said Kayata, whose squad defeated Cumberland, 80-61, in Tuesday’s semifinals. “I am proud of my guys. They have worked really hard. They have worked really hard to get where we are. It’s going to be a long season, but we are just going to take it one game at a time right now.”
Behind the hot hands of Scott, Tolman held a 33-24 advantage over the Lions at halftime. Scott was deadly from behind the arc, scoring 15 points at the break on five 3-pointers. The Tigers were playing the game without star point guard Rodney Bustillo, who injured his shin in the Clippers’ contest and is on day-to-day status.
While his strong defensive presence and leadership were often times missed, Tolman was still able stay comfortably ahead for much of the first half. The Tigers opened up a 10-2 lead, including two long-range bombers by Scott, just four minutes into the game. Tolman held its biggest advantage, at 33-19, with 1:32 remaining.
And that’s when the Lions slowly started to sneak back in. Dominating underneath the bucket, the Lions scored the final five points of the half that ended with a three-point play from Matt Mennucci with .8 seconds left on the clock.
Lincoln continued its momentum once the second half began, scoring seven unanswered points. Curtis Walsh (seven points) and Matt Lague (14 points) began the surge with back-to-back layups and then Andrew Juckett converted a three-point play after getting fouled on his layup from the baseline.
Shortly after, the Lions tied the game at 35 on another three-point play, this one from Walsh, and the rest of the contest turned into a nail-biter.
With some of his players in foul trouble, Kayata switched from his man-to-man defense towards the end of the first half and it didn’t work out as planned.
“We went to the zone and they ate us up,” said the Tolman coach. “We didn’t under stand our rotations and it hurt us. They got open looks. They got layups. They were getting anything back to the middle. We went back to the matchup. We went back to the man. At that point it was a tie game and we pretty much knew it was going to be a dogfight. “
The Lions never did quit against the Tigers. With about a minute left in the game, Scott hit a big layup to give Tolman a 59-51 advantage. But the Lions roared back with seven straight points to get within one before Graca made a pair of free throws in the final few seconds to essentially seal the deal.
“From when they tied the game to the final buzzer it was a dogfight,” Kayata admitted. “Both teams had opportunities to take the game over and it didn’t happen. It came down to foul shooting at the end. Jeremy made two huge ones with seven seconds left to put us up three.”