JOHNSTON — In just its second season of R.I. Interscholastic League play, the Blackstone Valley Prep boys basketball team has its first signature victory.
The undefeated Pride started Tuesday’s showdown with unbeaten Johnston in the worst possible way, turning the ball over on four of their first five turnovers, which allowed the homestanding Panthers to jump out to a 12-point lead.
BVP had a similarly tough start to the second half, but slowly they worked their way back into the game and took their first lead of the half on a Kalil Fofana attack with just 44 seconds remaining. Thanks to some solid defense and four key free throws from junior forward Xavier Mendez, the Pride rolled back up I-295 with a satisfying 57-53 Division III victory.
“Our whole team just kept their spirit up and we just kept pushing and pushing,” Mendez said after knowing down three 3-pointers and scoring a team-high 17 points. “Johnston’s a very good team and debatably one of the best teams in the division. This is one of the best games I’ve ever played in since I was here as a freshman.”
“Kalil Fofana is just a freshman, but he was just huge for us. He was fearless and he kept attacking,” BVP coach Kevin Payette said. “This win is just huge for us. What we’re talking about every single night is our effort level. Win or lose, if you can go out there and give a championship effort we’re OK.”
BVP (5-0 Division III) had no answer for Johnston wing Justin Powell, who poured in a game-high 25 points to go along with five 3-pointers. Powell put the Panthers up 46-40 with just 5:10 remaining when he finished off a personal 5-0 run with a bucket in the paint. Powell only scored two points for the rest of the game, as the Pride tightened up their man-to-man defense.
Big shots from senior wing Sony Traore (14 points) and Abdoulaye Sall (four points) helped the Pride cut the deficit to just three with two minutes remaining when Payette turned to his top player. Mendez caught the ball in the right corner with Johnston forward Tom Zednik in his face. The junior raced to the hoop and scored on an up and under to cut the gap to one at 50-49.
“I pumped faked him a little bit and then I just drove baseline and powered through the contact and reversed with the right,” Mendez said.
Fofana, who scored 15 points, gave the Pride the lead and then Mendez stretched the lead out to five with four straight free throws. Johnston freshman Hunter Remington made a last-second 3-pointer, but Fofana iced the game with a pair of free throws.
“This feels very good with how we’re bringing everything together,” Mendez said. “We’re a special group. We could do a lot of good things if we put our mind to it and keep working hard.”
Johnston (4-1 Division III) received 11 points from Zednik and nine points from junior wing Anthony Tavares to supplement Powell’s performance. The Panthers forced the Pride to commit 11 turnovers in the first half, including four in the first two minutes. Remington and Powell made 3-pointers in the first four minutes to give the Panthers a 12-0 lead.
BVP responded with an 11-0 thanks to a Mendez 3-pointer and four straight points from Fofana. The Pride made eight 3-pointers, while the Panthers made 10. The Pride took their only lead of the half on back-to-back buckets by Traore and Fofana before Powell and Tavares hit 3-pointers to help the Panthers go into halftime with a 25-20 lead.
“We only had three or four turnovers in the second half after committing 11 in the first half,” Payette said. “When you take care of the ball and take good shots, good things happen.”
The Panthers scored the first five points of the second to build a 10-point lead, but the Pride went on a 15-6 run punctuated by a Traore 3-pointer to close the gap to one. Powell helped the home side rebuild a comfortable lead before Fofana and Mendez kept the Pride undefeated.
BVP returns home Thursday night when Central Falls makes the short trip to Cumberland for a 7 o’clock contest.
Follow Branden Mello on Twitter @Branden_Mello