COVENTRY — There’s still business to tend to, namely Friday’s Division II semifinal clash against Barrington. Yet without running the risk of looking too far ahead, what Tolman High accomplished Wednesday night may have been the finishing touch to securing a spot in the 16-team open state tournament.
Such relief was made possible after third-seeded Tolman held on for a 61-54 victory over No. 6 Exeter/West Greenwich in quarterfinal-round action at Coventry High School. Denzel DePina ruled the paint with 18 points and 14 rebounds while the playmaking of Jesse Fernandes resulted in a near triple double (nine points, seven assists, seven rebounds).
As far as the Power Point standings that essentially serve as the determining factor as far as who’s heading to the states and who’s out, Tolman now has an even 12 points. The Tigers were seeded 11th prior to Wednesday’s playoff action.
“I think we sealed a spot in the open tournament,” Tolman head coach Mike Kayata confidently stated after his squad topped EWG for the third time this season. “This was a big step.”
The all-inclusive tournament does not begin until next week. Next on the docket for the Tigers is a major test against No. 2 Barrington, which rolled to a 75-30 victory against seventh-seeded Central Falls in the other quarterfinal tilt that took place on the Knotty Oakers’ home floor Wednesday night.
For those who plan to add the Tolman-Barrington matchup to their itinerary, plan to be at Rhode Island College’s Murray Center Friday night. The game is scheduled to tip-off at 6 o’clock. The other Division II semifinal pits top seed West Warwick against No. 5 North Providence.
There certainly wasn’t an element of surprise surrounding the Tolman-EWG clash. The Tigers took both regular-season meetings from their II-Central rival by a combined four points. For much of Wednesday night, the third installment was once again a back-and-forth affair that saw Tolman nearly surrender a seven-point lead with 3:38 remaining.
A three-pointer by the Scarlet Knights’ Connor Osberg cut Tolman’s advantage to 55-54 with 1:23 left, but junior Luis Pagan (eight points) calmly drained both free throws to up the Tigers’ lead to 57-54.
A missed three by EWG’s Justin Kennedy prompted Kayata to call a timeout. A missed three by Steven Otis became a distant memory when DePina grabbed the offensive board and fed Fernandes, who was fouled. Fernandes made 1-of-2 to make it a two-possession game with 30.8 seconds left.
Another missed trey bid by Kennedy resulted in more free throws for Tolman as Otis and Keanu Perry (seven points) each took turns connecting at the charity stripe. Perry’s two free throws with 4.2 seconds left proved to be the final points of the contest.
While the Tigers certainly rose the occasion, there were stretches when it seemed trouble was on the horizon. Kayata was forced to go with a makeshift lineup after starting point guard Prince Johnson picked up his second foul at the 5:15 mark of the first half and DePina likewise with 3:10 left.
All things considered, Tolman was fortunate to only trail by 30-27 at recess. The Tigers ended the opening half missing eight of their last 10 shots with four turnovers.
“We knew we didn’t have the right personnel on the floor,” said Kayata.
With his entire starting lineup back together, Kayata watched as Tolman ripped off a 15-5 run to begin the second half. Otis’ second and final three of the game made it 42-35 with not even six minutes gone by.
The Scarley Knights tried to chip away, but the Tigers continued to own the advantage on the scoreboard thanks in large part to DePina. Not only was the center asserting his will on the offensive end on his way to registering 11 second-half points, but he did his part in holding Exeter/West Greenwich to one shot per possession, something that wasn’t the case in the first half.
Otis finished with nine points and four rebounds. Those modest totals for one of Tolman’s top players doesn’t even begin to describe the job he did defensively on EWG’s Kennedy. The Scarlet Knights’ leading scorer was held to 13 points, roughly five points below his season average. Osberg led Exeter with 16 points while Jack Livsey had 13 points.
“Our goal was to get them out of their zone, and it took until five minutes left for us to do that,” Kayata said. “The difference was Fernandes. He has the ability to locate open men on the floor.”
Barrington jumped all over Central Falls early and often on its way to cruising into halftime with a 29-10 lead. Defensively, the Eagles sealed up the driving lines that became the norm for the Warriors’ Julian Soares to successfully navigate this winter. Playing in his final high-school game, Soares finished with seven points.
“We took a couple of jump shots early on instead of attacking the basket. We missed them and it got tighter and tighter progressively through the first half,” said C.F. mentor Brian Crookes.
While the ending was bittersweet, the Warriors can take comfort in the 11 league wins (counting playoffs) they compiled this winter following last year’s winless campaign.
“I had so much fun coaching this group. They competed every single night,” said Crookes. “It was a thrill to coach them.”
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03