PAWTUCKET — When St. Raphael Academy’s senior forward, Cesar Mejia, picked up his fourth personal foul early in the second half of Tuesday night’s Division I game with Cranston East, point guard Charles Correa had a bad thought.
“I thought we were in trouble without Cesar,” Correa admitted.
Then Correa, arguably the best high school player in Rhode Island, had another thought.
“I knew I had to try to control the game,” he said. And that’s what the flashy ballhandler did, finishing with 28 points and 9 assists in a 78-67 victory that had more ups and downs than Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign.
Correa has the talent to take over games, even against a solid playoff contender like Cranston East. The Saints held a 45-35 lead when Mejia went to the bench. The 5-foot-8 Correa immediately hit a three-pointer over the tenacious defense of six-foot guard Chris Kpahn, then drove the baseline and spun in a reverse layup for a 50-35 lead. After Cranston East’s Nate Isom (22 points) drilled a three, Correa again went baseline for a smooth jumper and a 52-38 lead.
The game was just warming up. Cranston East went on a 12-0 run to pull within two points at 52-50 with eight minutes left. The Thunderbolts got a pair of steals and layups from Kpahn, another three from Nate Isom, and two hoops from yet another swift guard, E.J. Isom.
Mejia came back in midway through the Bolts’ run but couldn’t change the momentum right away. Correa penetrated and dished to junior forward Abdou Bah for a layup to stop the surge. Then Mejia drove through the defense for a layup, followed by another drive that resulted in two free throws and a 58-50 lead.
Senior forward Albert DeRobbio drilled a three to make it 58-53 with 6:30 left in the game. Never giving up, the ‘Bolts cut their deficit to 68-63 at the two-minute mark, shortly after Mejia fouled out.
Maybe the biggest play of the night came when Saints’ reserve forward Kaseem Sams scored off an offensive rebound for a 70-63 lead. Correa followed with two jumpers to put the game away in the final minute. On one of the jumpers, this one from the top of the key, Correa went up in the air and changed his shooting position to avoid having his shot blocked, then swished in the basket, almost Jordan-like. The crowd of nearly 400 began to buzz over that move, one of several stylistic moves by Correa that came within the flow of the game, pleasing both the fans and his head coach.
“Charles took us home,” Saints coach Tom Sorrentine said after the game. “He has that kind of talent. Cranston East has a really good point guard (Kpahn) but we thought they only had one shooter (DeRobbio) but it turned out they had two. That number 11 (Isom) really hurt us.”
Cranston East also has a 6-foot-7 senior center, Patrick Marchand, who finished with 13 points. Sorrentine used 6-foot-4 Davon Robertson and 6-foot-5 Bah to push Marchand away from the basket as often as possible.
“They have one good big guy but we feel like we have two,” Sorrentine said. (Mejia, who is 6-foot-3, plays bigger than his height. Bah is a work in progress, an athletic player who needs to refine his shooting technique near the hoop.
“He gets the ball and puts it down here,” Sorrentine said, pointing to the floor. “We’re working with Abdou. Games like tonight are good learning experiences for him.”
The Saints tore through Cranston East’s zone defense in the first half, scoring 16 straight points to pad their lead to 30-12. Both teams were trying to pressure the ball-handlers but it was the Saints who got the ball up-court more easily, stationing Correa at the midcourt line and letting his forwards in-bound and get the ball to their point guard, who then turned and created for his teammates.
The Saints led 42-28 at halftime as Correa and Robertson finished with 13 points and Mejia added 12.
Robertson is not normally a potent scorer.
“We wanted to get Davon involved and he had a nice game,” Sorrentine said, listing his 18 points and 7 rebounds as a big key to the victory, along with strong defense on Marchand.
Mejia finished with 20 points in a frustrating, foul-plagued night. He and DeRobbio exchanged words after a foul late in the first half. Marchand drew the fourth foul on Mejia early in the second half with a strong move to the hoop.
“Cranston East is a tough team,” Correa admitted. “They hustle and they never give up. I think they are one of the better teams we will see.”
Cranston East made just five of 13 free throws to SRA’s 12-for-14 effort.
St. Raphael survived a tough opponent with its senior forward and team leader in foul trouble. That’s probably a good omen for the defending state champions, who improved to 4-0 in Division I-North and 8-0 overall.
The Saints will visit Cranston West on Friday night, then play Connecticut’s New London in a non-league game Saturday night that is designed to give Sorrentine’s crew another high-energy opponent.