Sports editor emeritus
PAWTUCKET — Tolman High coach Mike Kayata has been juggling a bunch of individual talents over the first month of the season while looking for the one piece that will turn his team into a cohesive machine on offense.
“I’ve been looking for a point guard,” the coach said after the Tigers rolled to a 70-56 victory over Shea High in the annual James W. Donaldson Memorial Scholarship game before a full house of vocal fans from both schools.
Examining the stat sheet and learning that newcomer Prince Johnson Jr. collected 10 assists on the night, Kayata smiled.
“Maybe we have found one,” he said, speaking of that elusive point guard who can make his teammates better and his coach look smart.
Johnson is a late arrival following football season. He wore uniform No. 3 with a white number 1 pasted next to the 3.
“Prince Johnson is No. 13,” Kayata said before the game. But the white number 1 barely showed up as anything more than blank tape. No matter. Johnson started the game slowly, making passes and keeping the offense flowing as the Tigers rallied from an early 8-4 deficit with a 9-0 run. Shea would tie the game one last time at 18 before Tolman pulled ahead for good.
Tiger forwards Alex Lopez (17 points) and Tyler Reece (14 points) just needed to run the floor and Johnson would deliver a hard bounce pass through traffic that, if caught, often resulted in layups.
Shea High hung close during the first half, falling behind 29-20 with three minutes left before closing to 31-26 at halftime.
“I thought we fell asleep in the final three minutes,” Kayata admitted. “Our message at halftime was to play hard for all 16 minutes of the second half. And they did it.”
Shea closed to within three points at 33-30 on buckets by Armani Baker (13 points) and Armani Luciano (15 points) before Tolman went on a 14-0 run fueled by Johnson’s playmaking and Tolman’s ability to get down the floor for high-percentage shots at the hoop.
“Tolman pushed the pace in the second half,” Shea coach Matt Pita admitted. “We need to do a better job rebounding and finishing. We’ve got to make our layups. And we turned the ball over too often. We start four guards but we really don’t have a true point guard.”
At least on this occasion, Shea lacked that one playmaking guard who looks to set up his teammates by penetrating and dishing. Luciano is a good shooter. Baker is more of an athletic forward with great jumping skills. Ellis Smith can play out front on offense and stand in the center of Shea’s zone defense but for this night, he didn’t assert himself, getting into foul trouble in the second half along with Baker, who fouled out late in the game.
Tolman utilized all of its many pieces. Shooting guard Steve Otis scored a quiet 11 points, often getting the ball in rhythm for an open shot with Johnson making the timely pass. Keanu Perry ran the court, played tough defense, and finished with nine points. Center Nate Gagnon got three buckets and boosted Tolman’s rebounding advantage. Senior forward Denzel DePina, Tolman’s tallest player, drilled a three off the bench early in the first half and finished with six points.
Kayata used nine quality players in his regular rotation, an asset not yet available to Matt Pita in this still young season.
Tolman, 1-1 in Division II action, took a 53-32 lead midway through the second half and coasted home. Shea never gave up, cutting its deficit to 60-46 with 5:10 left as Luciano made two steals and converted them into layups while nursing a sore foot that sent him to the bench in between baskets.
Sophomore Domenic Fernandes showed a soft shooting touch off the bench, scoring six points late in the game as Shea rallied to make the final score more respectable than the game actually played out.
The Tigers, 2-3 overall, host Barrington on Friday night. Shea, now 1-4, hosts Portsmouth on the same evening.