PAWTUCKET — Minutes before the Division II-Central clash between archrivals Tolman and Shea highs, Tigers coach Mike Kayata seemed even more intense than usual, and that's hard for him.
“We're playing to win this one,” he said as his players warmed up, “and the answer is going to be defense. We have to take care of the ball and limit their fast-break points. If we do that, we should be OK. They're tough. They're 13-3 for a reason, and we know that. These guys all know each other, so this is about pride and respect. We just have to take care of the ball.”
Alas, Kayata's bunch didn't early on, posting five turnovers in the first three-plus minutes. That, and a 14-0 flurry in a span of 3:09 midway through the first half gave the Raiders a 21-9 cushion.
Despite a few minor Tolman rallies in the second half, Shea eventually secured a 70-58 Division II-Central victory at “The Cage” on Friday night.
The Raiders rose to 18-4 overall and 14-3 in league action, while the Tigers fell to 13-9 on the season and 8-9 in divisional action.
Senior forward Michael Neal led the triumphant crew with nearly a “triple-double” as he finished with 11 points, 11 rebounds, nine blocks and six assists. Senior guard Jordy Brito topped out all scorers in this tilt, netting 19 points while contributing seven assists and four steals. Fellow classmate and forward Kenric Carter managed 16 points, with 12 coming over the final 16 minutes.
As for the Tigers, junior captain Juan Velez, the squad's top scorer all season, finished with a team-high 15 points, while Napoleon Johnson posted 12 (with nine assists and five steals) and Mamour Samb 13 (with a trio of three-pointers).
“It was a great basketball game; I guess you could call it 'controlled chaos,'” Shea mentor Matt Pita said afterward. “Our goal was to take Juan Velez out of his rhythm, and their game plan, and we did. That's one of the reasons he fouled out with 9:01 to go (in the final half).
“I'd say foul shots won the game for us as well, as we finished 24-for-34,” he added. “A big reason for that was Nathan Lopes. He only had a bucket, but he nailed nine of 10 from the stripe. The way I look at it, Jordy stepped up big in the first half, Kenric in the second and Nathan finished the game for us at the line.”
The first half ended with the Raiders up, 29-22, but they extended the cushion to 44-31 with 10:50 remaining with a pair of free throws.
The Tigers, however, battled back. A running, one-hand jumper by Mamour Samb sliced the deficit to 44-36 with a trey at 10:07, and – just 3:13 later – Samb landed a long-range three-pointer to cut it to 48-45.
Tolman actually sliced it back to three points (50-47) after Seny Samb sank a putback with 5:07 left, and did again with 1:43 remaining (59-56) after Seny Samb converted a foul shot and missed the second, but Jonathan Percy canned the putback.
Down the stretch, however, two other Tigers fouled out, including Carter and Ellis Smith. With 1:08 left, Lopes drained a pair of freebies to make it 65-58, and he added five more to clinch the triumph.
“We couldn't make a shot; our big men were awful,” Kayata explained afterward. “We worked on our game plan in practice, and we had nobody step up to make plays and execute. We dropped the ball, we missed easy shots and we turned the ball over.
“They should've beaten us by 30, the way we played; we made so many mistakes, but we only lost by 12 with three of our best players on the bench. We still had a chance to win."