PAWTUCKET – Sure, wins right now have their place. Yet with an open tournament in less than two months to determine one true state tournament, Tolman head coach Mike Kayata has opted to take a look at the extended forecast.
“We want to be playing our best ball going into that tournament,” remarked Kayata after Tolman took out winless Chariho, 75-51, on Tues-day night at Donaldson Gymnasium. “The goal is to get to the state tournament, and we’re trying to get there. We don’t want to be playing our best ball now. We want to be playing our best ball come mid-February, when the games mean more. They mean a lot right now because of the standings, but they are going to mean much more come March.”
If the Tigers continue to string together victories at a high clip, then being a Sweet 16 participant is definitely within reach. Last night marked the club’s fourth straight league win and eighth in the last nine outings. Tolman will take a 6-3 Division II record into Thursday’s intriguing matchup with West Warwick, which tasted a double digit defeat at the hands of Shea on Tuesday.
Elijah Wiggins enjoyed one of better games of his varsity career, the senior pouring in a game-best 28 points to go along with 8 rebounds. Wiggins was stuck on 28 when Kayata inserted the player known as “Shaq” with 4:52 remaining and the Tigers coasting, up 64-41. Though he admitted afterwards that it would have been nice to reach the 30-point plateau, Wiggins knows there are bigger things to focus on.
“We’re a team,” said the soft-speaking Wiggins, who clearly prefers to let his actions on the court do the talking. That was clearly the case when he stole the ball at midcourt and went up for a thunderous one-handed dunk late in the first half.
“Wiggins is better around the basket and he’s working harder,” said Kayata when asked about the strides his top big man has made this season.
Not to be outdone was the strong stat line Jeremy Graca put together, which consisted of 16 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists and 6 steals. Graca was one of the driving forces in Tolman taking a 34-20 lead into halftime as the senior helped spur a 9-0 run to close out the half. Juan Valez, who transferred from Middletown as tryouts were wrapping up, added 6 points, 7 assists and 5 steals.
“He was the missing piece to the puzzle. Now we have three tough guards in Velez, (point guard Rodney) Bustillo and Graca,” said Kayata. “(Valez) told me he could play. He started the year on junior varsity because he couldn’t make the runs. After two weeks of playing (assistant coach Craig Giarrusso) said to me, ‘We can’t keep him here (on JV) any more.’ Now he’s arguably one of our best players.
“I’ll say this about Valez: He comes to play every night,” Kayata went on. “He stays focused and at halftime he’ll tell the guys that it’s not over.”
Tuesday’s game was for all intensive purposes in the refrigerator by the time intermission rolled around. The Tigers rebounded from a sluggish start – they opened the game hitting two of their first 13 shots – to make sure the Chargers (0-8 Div. II-South, 0-12 overall) would be continuing their mission for their first victory elsewhere.
Tolman took the lead for good with four minutes left in the opening half as a hoop and a free throw by Graca broke a 16-all score.
The Tigers continued to overwhelm the Chargers at the onset of the second half, ripping off a 12-4 surge to go up 46-23. The score stood at 56-31 at 8:44 when Wiggins received what turns out was a four-minute breather.
“I think a lot of guys have picked up their intensity and their pace,” said Kayata. “They are not just trying to do it. I think the way we’re playing right now is expected.”