PAWTUCKET — By definition a turning point is a critical juncture marked by a very significant change.
Breaking down the structure of the previous sentence, the “critical juncture” would refer to Tolman holding a one-point lead with 4:33 remaining in Monday’s Division II contest with crosstown rival Shea. The “significant change” came when Raiders senior captain Austin Silva was whistled for a personal foul after a scrum ensued under the Tigers’ basket. Silva picked up his fourth foul, then was nailed with a technical that carries the same penalty as a personal. The result was him fouling out of this critical contest.
“My interpretation is that he said something that he shouldn’t have,” was how Shea head coach Matt Pita chose to handle what was obviously a delicate issue.
Faced with the prospect of finishing the contest at a loud and raucous James W. Donaldson Memorial Gymnasium without Silva – “Austin’s a big part of our team; we go through him,” Pita said – Shea watched as Tolman asserted control. The Tigers went up nine points with 89 seconds remaining before holding on for a much-needed 62-58 triumph over their arch rival.
“I don’t know what (Silva) said, but (his fouling out) changed the game,” said Tolman head coach Mike Kayata, his crew now 9-6 in Division II-East. “It gave us a huge advantage.”
The game’s tenor prior to Silva’s game-changing moment was that of the teams running neck-and-neck. The score was tied at 27-apiece at halftime and stood at 46-45 Tolman with 7:06 left after Shea went up by five. The Raiders’ deficit remained at a lone point when Eli Itkin appeared to block Tolman big man Elijah Wiggins, but the referees saw differently, instead pinning the foul on Silva.
Silva tried to plead his case, but to no avail. His night – he had started heating up in the second half, where he scored seven of his nine points – was done with still plenty of time remaining.
Not only was Shea down one of its top offensive threats, the Raiders now faced the prospect of Itkin checking Wiggins down on the blocks. A tip by Wiggins gave Tolman something breathing room at 53-49. Juan Velez upped the lead to 58-49 after taking a feed from fellow Tolman guard Jeremy Graca and hitting a wide-open layup. The Tigers’ late-game surge coincided with the Raiders missing the front end of a pair of one-and-one chances.
Down but far from out, Shea trimmed four points off the deficit after Malik Moody banked in a deep 3-pointer and Harel Monteiro nailed 1-of-2 from the charity stripe. Two free throws by Velez made it a seven-point game, 60-53, with 45 ticks left, but Moody came through with a 3-point play that still left the door open for Shea.
The Raiders received a gift when Graca missed two free throws, but Moody couldn’t connect from downtown and Christian Malave couldn’t follow up the miss. A runner by Monteiro brought Shea to within 61-58 with six seconds left, but Graca made it a two-possession game with a free throw. That left the Raiders in a major bind with not much time left.
“I was worried about our ability to stay in the game than much less win the game by the way we’ve been playing lately,” said Kayata, no doubt referring to last Friday’s 80-66 loss at North Providence. “Our guys came through and we played as a team. It was our best effort of the year.”
Wiggins collected another double-double, this one consisting of 22 points and 11 rebounds. Graca and Rodney Bustillo each netted 12 points for Tolman while Velez scored all nine of his points in the second half. Bustillo drained three 3-pointers in the final four minutes of the opening half, including one with 16 seconds left to send the teams off the court tied at 27-27.
“Wiggins was the best player on the floor,” said Kayata.
Moody finished with 23 points to top Shea while Itkin poured in 15. The Raiders drop to 10-6 in league play.
“If somebody goes down, the question is who’s going to step up?” said Pita. “That’s the thing about this team, they find a way. Unfortunately we were on the losing end of a good game, but you learn from a loss. We’re trying to learn for the playoffs.”