NORTH PROVIDENCE – The music played over the PA system to introduce the players from top-seeded North Providence High was the theme song from the movie “Rocky” – the fictional story of the Philadelphia southpaw who overcame all odds to eventually become the heavyweight champion.
While the music was appropriate for the Cougars, who showed plenty of heart in Monday’s Division II quarterfinal matchup with No. 8 seed Tolman, it would be hard to not say the same for a gutsy Tiger squad.
Jeremy Graca, Juan Velez and the rest of their Tolman teammates gave the host Cougars everything it could handle before a packed and vocal crowd.
But unfortunately the outcome for the Tigers turned out just like the original “Rocky” movie where the Italian Stallion takes Apollo Creed to the 15th round before losing in the end.
Monday’s affair saw tired and weary North Providence hit just enough baskets down the stretch and overtime to pull out a 67-64 win.
Graca finished with a monster game for the Tigers, scoring a game-high 32 points that included six 3-pointers, all of which seemed to come at crucial times. Velez, who had 11 points, hit a pair of clutch free throws with 10.9 seconds in regulation to send the game into the four-minute overtime. Elijiah Wiggins had a double-double with 13 points and 18 rebounds and point guard Rodney Bustillo dished out eight assists and had three steals.
The defense also came through with an A-plus effort for the Tigers. The Cougars’ sharpshooting junior Austin VanBemmelen did net 27 hard-earned points. But led by a standout job by sophomore Mamour Samb, the Tigers limited their other prime threat, junior Mike Ferrante, to just 10 points.
“We played our hearts out,” said Tolman coach Mike Kayata. “Jeremy Graca was intense, playing with a hurt neck the whole game. Juan Velez hit two huge free throws with 10 ticks on the clock, unbelievable! There were big shots from him. Rodney Bustillo was my guy all night long and Wiggins played. I can’t say anything bad. I am extremely proud of the guys. I just wish the game would have had a different outcome.”
The loss puts an end to a strong season by the Tigers, who finished a respectable 11-7 in Div. II-Central and 16-9 overall. North Providence (15-3 in Div. II-Central, 20-3 overall) moves on to the semifinals on Thursday at CCRI-Warwick where it will face the winner of Monday’s Westerly-West Warwick quarterfinal contest.
“We knew it would be a dogfight,” said North Providence coach Paul Rizzo, shortly after the game. “Our motto is we take one game at a time. We don’t take anyone lightly because we are a one seed. That’s unfamiliar territory for us. We basically knew it was going to come down to possessions and who makes shots. That kid Velez had ice water in his veins. Just the whole team, it is a sound, sound ballclub. They always are every year.”
What proved to be a huge turning point in the game came with 4:21 left in regulation. Deadlocked at 50, Samb got called for a rare double-technical when he bounced the ball hard on the court after a call by the referee. The Cougars’ Jake DiDomenico and VanBemmelen each hit a pair of free throws for a quick, four-point swing. N.P. increased its advantage to seven points, at 57-50, when Dillon McCluskie hit a 3-pointer with 2:10 remaining.
Even though the Tigers came back with two big 3-pointers from Graca and Velez’s free throws, Kayata felt maybe things would have worked out differently had a double-technical not been issued.
“He bounced the ball on his hand and he got a technical,” said the Tigers’ coach. “They made four free throws and it cost us. It cost us down the stretch in the game. At that point, it was a tie game. The (referees) should have known better with the emotion of the game to make that call. That’s how I feel.”
North Providence took charge at the start of the game, exhibiting a lightning-face offense that produced a 13-5 lead less than four minutes after the opening tip-off. But the Tigers gave the Cougars an inkling of what to expect the remainder of the tilt as it didn’t back down.
Trailing by a 25-12 deficit at the midway point, capped by a 3-pointer from Greg Conroy, the Tigers rattled off 16 unanswered points to take their first lead of the game. The roughly, four-minute stretch featured nine points from Graca and a half-dozen more from Wiggins.
With the two squads tied at 32 with less than a minute left until halftime, Tolman took took a four-point lead (36-32) into the locker room. Samb hit a lay-up off a running, no-look pass from Velez and Graca, who had 20 points by the break, scored on another lay-up.
“They settled for 20-footers and we were getting lay-ups off their 20-footers,” Kayata said. “That got us back into the game. That big spurt allowed us to have that four-point lead.”
Tolman slowed the pace down in the second half and after sending the game into overtime almost sent it into double OT but Velez’s 3-point shot near the top of the key came up short.
“It’s been a great season for us,” Kayata said. “I mean twelve other teams didn’t get here and in our last game of the season we beat Shea, we won on Senior Night at Lincoln and we beat Central Falls (in Friday’s preliminary round) to knock them out of the playoffs. We accomplished a lot. This game would have been huge for us. It’s sad because we are playing our best basketball right now. We played our best game of the season tonight. It’s unfortunate that it’s over.”
NORTH PROVIDENCE (67) – Greg Conroy 2 0-0 6, Austin VanBemmelen 9 9-13 27, Dillon McCluskie 2 3-8 8, Domenick Coro 1 0-0 2, Mike Ferrante 5 0-2 10, Jake DiDomenico 4 4-4 12, Mike Corin 1 0-0 2. Totals – 24 16-27 67
TOLMAN (64) – Rodney Bustillo 0 0-0 0, Mamour Samb 4 0-0 8, Jeremy Graca 11 4-5 32, Elijiah Wiggins 6 1-4 13, Juan Velez 3 5-6 11. Totals – 24 10-15 64
Halftime – T, 36-32. Regulation – 60-60. 3-point goals – T (6): Graca 6. NP (3): Conroy 2, McCluskie 1.