PAWTUCKET — Throughout this wave of stellar play to end the regular season, one item has stood out above all else for coach Mike Kayata and his Tolman basketball lot.
Spitting out well-worn clichés such as “playing together” may come across as so pedestrian, but that’s exactly why the Tigers enter the Division II postseason on an impressive roll. Tolman registered its fifth straight victory Tuesday night, a come-from-behind 65-51 win at Shea.
Before getting into the particulars regarding how the Tigers wound up capturing their eighth win in nine tries, a little sneak peak at what lies ahead. Tolman appears to have the third seed in the 10-team divisional tournament locked up, thus Kayata & Co. would avoid the preliminary round that’s scheduled for Friday night.
If the math and standings shake out accordingly, Tolman (13-5, Division II-East) would face Exeter/West Greenwich next Tuesday night in the quarterfinals at a site to be determined.
In order to feel completely at ease heading into a several-day break away from game competition, the Tigers had to maneuver past a Raiders’ outfit that was honoring six 12th graders as part of the annual “Senior Night” festivities. For the vast majority of the first half Tuesday, Tolman looked nothing like the squad that has been on a solid roll lately. Bad execution on offense coupled with missed defensive assignments had Tolman down 31-26 at halftime and Kayata in a foul mood.
Maybe it was the adrenaline of “Senior Night,” but the Tolman mentor knew that what transpired in the opening 16 minutes was not acceptable. Before talking strategy, Kayata made sure to remind the Tigers about the importance of cohesiveness and steering clear of splintering off in separate directions.
“I told them they were selfish and weren’t working together,” said Kayata. “A lot of us thought we could get whatever we wanted. They didn’t need screens or each other, but they did.”
The message did not fall on deaf ears. Displaying togetherness, Tolman scored the first nine points of the second half and never looked back on its way to raining on the parade of seniors Armani Baker, Chris Luciano and the rest of the Shea cagers. All told, the Tigers ripped off a 23-7 run to start the second stanza to go up 49-38 with under nine minutes remaining.
Denzel DePina helped key Tolman’s resurgence with a game-best 19 points and 11 rebounds while Tyler Reece had 10 points and 12 rebounds. Kayata was effusive in his praise about the job Reece did defensively on Baker, the high-flying Shea senior who was held well below his scoring average.
Baker finished with 10 points with just three coming in the second half. His ability to catch the ball at the foul line and decide which way to attack the basket was severely compromised thanks to Reece, who also had some assistance from teammate Jesse Fernandes (10 points). Luciano finished with 13 points to top Shea, which will sit out the postseason for the first time since the 2006-07 season.
“Baker is a stud and a great player. He can play for me any day of the week,” said Kayata. “We knew if we could stop him and Luciano on their Senior Night, we felt comfortable that we could win the game.
“It got a little bit scary there when we were playing selfish and not together,” the head coach added.
The Tigers took it to another level in the second half when Prince Johnson stole the ball at midcourt and glided in for an uncontested hoop and Luis Pagan swished back-to-back 3-pointers to make it 63-47. With the game clearly in Tolman’s favor, Shea head coach Matt Pita decided to give Baker, Luciano, Jamiel Rodrigues, Manny Delgado and Ellis Smith one final chance to receive applause in a high-school basketball setting. All five players came off the floor to a nice ovation with 1:25 left.
“It was the right thing to do,” said Pita, his Raiders closing at 3-15.
The first half featured 11 lead changes with Shea going up by as many as seven points late before Fernandes banked in a shot at the buzzer. Tolman fell behind 16-11 before rallying to take a 24-23 lead after Steven Otis (10 points) swished home his club’s only trey on the night.
“Running the plays and being structured is tough on a night like this, but overall I’m really proud of my guys,” said Kayata. “We’ve had a really great regular season, but our new season begins now.”
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03