PAWTUCKET — If you were to go up to Mike Kayata and tell him that senior star Elijah Wiggins would be a non-factor due to foul problems, the Tolman head coach would say his team is in really deep trouble.
Such a scenario reared its head Friday night for the Tigers, as Wiggins managed just four points in 10 foul-plagued minutes, the senior picking up his fifth and final personal with 2:30 left. Instead of wondering what in heaven’s name to do, Tolman turned to its backcourt unit to see if they could carry the day against Central Falls in the Division II preliminaries at the Donaldson Memorial Gymnasium.
Seniors Jeremy Graca and Rodney Bustillo and sophomore Juan Velez responded to the call, the Tolman trio paying big dividends in a roller coaster of an affair over C.F., 78-67. The win earns Tolman, the No. 8 seed, a date with top seeded North Providence Monday night in the quarterfinals.
On a night in which Wiggins was grounded, Velez, Graca and Bustillo were more than willing to shoulder the load. Attacking the basket with a firm purpose, Velez poured in 18 of his game-high 26 points in the second half. The quick-on-his-feet guard went 10-of-12 at the foul line while anchoring Tolman’s full-court pressing scheme, one that helped turn the tide in the home team’s favor in the second half.
Not to be outdone was the work turned in by Graca, who nailed two key 3-pointers in the second half on his way to 22 points and seven rebounds. Displaying a calm and steady hand resulted in 16 points, five assists and four steals for Bustillo.
“They did a great job without me; they aren’t used to playing without me,” said Wiggins, also noting the contributions of reserve Mamour Samb, who provided 10 points. “They all had great nights.”
Said Kayata, “We have been counting on our big man so much. Tonight was about our guards. It was Jeremy, it was Juan, it was Rodney and it was Mamour. We missed Wiggins, but to win without him gives us so much confidence.”
The loss was a tough one for C.F. to swallow. The Warriors dominated for much of the opening half, going up as many as 15 (30-15) before taking a 32-25 lead into the half. Cliff Johnson led the way with 22 points while Ryan Murray added 16 points for the Warriors, who captured the II-North banner after moving up from Division III last season.
“We were pleased to get Wiggins in foul trouble, but their guards took over,” said C.F. head coach Brian Crookes. “We couldn’t get what we needed to get going in that second half. I’m proud of my guys. They played their hearts outs.”
The Tigers started to show signs of life late in the first half after allowing the Warriors to score at will in the early stages. Thanks to a 10-2 run right before the break – one that was aided by five C.F. turnovers – Tolman was able to enter halftime feeling somewhat good about its chances, this despite Wiggins sitting out the final 7:28 with three fouls.
Tolman erupted into an offensive tsunami early in the second half, ripping off a 17-4 run that was keyed by some tenacious defense. The result was a myriad of transition opportunities and a 50-45 lead for the home team with 7:30 remaining.
“That huge run was able to carry us,” noted Kayata.
If the Tigers weren’t finishing at the rim, they were parading to the foul line. Tolman went to the foul line a whopping 29 times in the second half as compared to just nine for Central Falls.
“I thought they got to the basket in the second half and we committed fouls,” conceded Crookes. “We wanted to make them shoot jump shots. I thought Jeremy played a brave second half, so kudos to him and Velez.”
“We know Juan is heading to the rim once he picks up a loose ball,” said Kayata. “He’s a great 1-on-1 player and was able to make some jumpers.”
Tolman led 70-60 with 1:16 remaining, a lead that would have been more had the Tigers not missed four free throws in a 24-second stretch. Johnson nailed a trey right in front of the C.F. bench with 57 ticks left to cut it to 71-65, but Tolman applied the finishing touches at the foul line, where Graca, Bustillo and Velez combined to go 7-for-8.