PAWTUCKET – Mike Kayata and Matt Pita aren’t about to tell Tom “Saar” Sorrentine anything he doesn’t already know. On Monday the longtime St. Raphael Academy coach was present as North Providence ushered top seed Cranston West out of the state tournament behind a reverse lay-in in the dying seconds from one of the Cougars’ chief threats, Austin Van Bemmelen.
It was the type of play that Kayata and Pita have seen countless times already – both in real time and maybe in their sleep. It’s also what Sorrentine is looking to steer clear of when his Saints meet the elusive Cougars Friday night in the semifinals at URI’s Ryan Center. A win over Division II North Providence would push SRA into Saturday’s championship round, facing either Central or Tiverton.
Anyone that’s followed this basketball season can appreciate the style that North Providence displays. The Div. II champions can shoot from the outside and beat teams off the dribble, two must-have traits that very few high school teams possess nowadays. The ninth-seeded Cougars can also take a missed shot and sprint down the floor, creating favorable numbers if the opposition is caught asleep.
For opposing coaches like Kayata (Tolman) and Pita (Shea), the choice comes down to picking your poison and living with the decision. North Providence is too multifaceted to slow down altogether.
“North Providence can score points in bunches. They are going to get you on the fastbreak because they don’t stop running. They are going to run no matter what,” Kayata said. “All it takes is a few missed shots on your end and suddenly they’re pushing the ball down your throat. They’ll score if you don’t get back. They are smart, physical, well-coached and disciplined. They don’t make mistakes that are going to kill them. They tend to force shots, but they are a great shooting team.”
Added Pita, “They have shooters, so they can score. If you can score, you can beat anybody.”
Tolman and Shea reside in the same division as N.P., meaning the teams engaged in a home and away series. The Raiders split their meetings with the Cougars while the Tigers dropped all three encounters, the last one a heartbreaking overtime loss in the Division II tournament.
Van Bemmelen is the engine that makes the Cougars go, witnessed by the 51 points he went off for against Central Falls on Jan. 31. His offensive style embodies how North Providence befuddles teams, as the 5-foot-11 junior has swished 57 3-pointers for a 21-point scoring average. Van Bemmelen hit a shot with one second remaining to force overtime in Shea’s eventual 94-92 overtime win at “The Cage” on Dec. 20.
Pita can look back and without hesitation say that squeaking one out against a team that’s still alive for a state title is the most satisfying moment of his first year as Shea’s head coach.
“We just traded baskets the whole night,” recalled Pita. “Kids weren’t missing.”
The one matchup Pita plans on paying the most attention to Friday involves Van Bemmelen and Charles Correa, St. Raphael’s ultra-quick point guard. The two have a history dating back to middle school, when Correa was at Jenks and Van Bemmelen starred at Birchwood.
“Obviously Austin is a lot less explosive, but he makes up for it with his smarts,” said Pita. “You’ve got two great guards but they play two different ways. Which way is going to win out?”
Mike Ferrante is just as lethal in the points department. The Cougars’ junior swingman averaged 28 points against the Raiders while the Tigers limited him to 19 points. A fellow 20-point scorer, Ferrante managed just 10 points in the playoff win over Tolman after compiling 28 and 20 points in the two regular season meetings. Kayata says the credit for holding Ferrante in check goes to sophomore Mamour Samb, who was instructed by his coach to “make him smell your breath.”
“Ferrante is a physical player,” notes Kayata. “Even if you’re defending him, he can reach around and still score the ball. If you let him hold the ball on the wing and in isolation, they are going to get to you. They are going to wear you down and get you in foul trouble.”
North Providence’s supporting cast is such that St. Raphael can’t forget about them and concentrate solely on Van Bemmelen and Ferrante. Jake DiDomenico, Greg Conroy, Domenick Coro and Mike Corin have taken turns in stepping up for Paul Rizzo’s outfit. Perhaps the group’s best attribute is their ability to space the floor, which according to Kayata is akin to opening the floodgates.
“When we played them, we dared two other guys to beat us,” Kayata said. “Conroy hit a big three against us (in the playoff encounter). I saw their big kid (DiDomenico) shooting 15 footers (versus Rogers in the Div. II finals) and I thought to myself, ‘Holy smokes.’ If 15 (McCluskie) is hitting shots, they are going to be tough. No. 20 (Coro) had a big game against Cranston West.”
Above all else, the Cougars have armed themselves with a sureness that can be traced back to their wins in the statewide tourney, both coming against Division I schools.
“They know they can win the game,” said Kayata, “and when you play with that confidence, it brings a swagger onto the floor.”