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Basketball playoffs should be interesting

February 13, 2012

North Smithfield's Matt Walkow and his teammates can't wait for the state tournament to begin. (ERNEST A. BROWN photo)

The last full week of the high school basketball season is upon us, meaning teams are in full spin mode in relation to securing playoff berths or jostling for seeding positions.
Regardless of the task at hand, this much is clear: with such little time available before the regular season ends a week from this Thursday, it’s best to make hay while the sun is still shining, i.e. take advantage of the games still on the regular-season docket. A team will have no reason to blame anyone except the one staring directly back from the mirror should the particular quest come up short; the opportunity stands before them.
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Now that we’ve set the mood, the time has come to explore what this next week-and-a-half has in store. For one thing, teams will tango with familiar divisional dance partners – repeat opponents that served as the official warm-up act when league play commenced shortly before Christmas.
Sticking closer to home, the most compelling division is II-Central, a four-team makeup that features two teams, specifically North Providence and Shea, that are separated by a single game in the standings, a third member (Tolman) that has settled into a nice groove and a fourth participant (Lincoln) that has a singular objective – playing the role of spoiler.
The opening of the three-game mini-season gets underway Tuesday night when North Providence (13-2) travels to Pawtucket to face Tolman (8-7). Shea (12-3) will attempt to avoid getting its heart broken on Valentine’s Day in a game at Lincoln (4-11). The drama concludes next Tuesday as the Cougars visit the Raiders in a game that could have much riding on it, depending on which way the winds blow between now and then.
While the Cougars, Tigers and Raiders have already secured berths in the open state tournament, that doesn’t mean the bulk of the heavy lifting is done. Tolman, presently riding a four-game winning streak that saw head coach Mike Kayata’s club swap residencies from the outhouse to the penthouse in terms of the playoff landscape, is a club that needs to win as many of its remaining games as possible in order to bolster its chances of hosting a first-round game on Friday, Feb. 24, the official startup date of the “Road to URI’s Ryan Center.”
With games coming up against North Providence and Shea, one set for Friday at the Raiders’ court, Tolman has two prime chances to state its candidacy as a team meriting more than a passing glance come tourney time.
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It’s interesting how the schedule works sometimes. North Providence played host to Tolman and Shea back in December. Home cooking played a major part in the Cougars winning both meetings by a combined 29 points.
While there’s no denying that N.P. is a talented lot, it’s worth denoting that at that particular December juncture, both Tolman and Shea were attempting to overcome the same stigma that always seems to sprout up – that of adjusting to playing on a bigger court after spending the preseason working at their tightly confined, turnover-awaiting-in-the-wings home dwellings (Donaldson Memorial Gymnasium for Tolman, “The Cage” for Shea).
Now the Tigers and Raiders get to repay the favor and welcome a Cougars outfit that loves to space the floor. Thanks to the non-existent corners on Tolman and Shea’s respective hoop domiciles, North Providence will have to seek out other means to free up primary scoring threats Austin Van Bemmelen, Mike Ferrante and Rob Hazard, who should be back in the lineup Tuesday after missing last Friday’s game at Cumberland due to a family matter.
“We just know that going to their places, they’re tough to play,” noted Cougars head coach Paul Rizzo following an 80-58 runaway performance at the expense of the Clippers. “We got them out of the way on the bigger court earlier so now it’s up to us to make the adjustment. It’s going to be a great test for us going up against two talented teams heading into the playoffs.
“We’re aware of the recent play of both teams so it should be interesting down the stretch,” continued Rizzo.
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The Power Point Standings that are being used to seed teams shows that St. Raphael sits in fourth place, the Saints’ 12-3 league record equaling that of La Salle. The Rams, though, own the tiebreaker based on winning the head-to-head meeting, a 74-69 double overtime La Salle victory back on Jan. 27 that kicked off a stretch that has seen the Saints drop three of five.
SRA’s most difficult game figures to take place Tuesday night when a desperate Hope team pays a visit to Alumni Hall. At 5-9 heading into Monday’s home date with Woonsocket (1-13), the Blue Wave need to win three of their final four games in order to reach the eight-win league plateau that automatically triggers a spot in the field.
St. Raphael’s recent slide is reminiscent of the doldrums that confronted Tom “Saar” Sorrentine’s club around this time a year ago. The Saints lost five of eight heading into the 16-team open tournament before capturing all four games en route to the championship. Last season’s SRA team found its stride on the defensive end while the current lot seeks to shore up its interior defense in addition to finding additional scoring to lessen the burden of primary threats Charles Correa and Cesar Mejia.
“We need other contributions,” Sorrentine noted. The SRA veteran mentor also divulged that Correa has been hindered by a knee injury over the past few weeks with multiple visits to physical therapy helping the valuable point guard get back up to speed.
Even if St. Raphael can remain in the top four of the overall standings, there remains a chance that a Division II team such as Rogers (13-2), West Warwick (14-1) or North Providence could overtake the Saints given that the overall Div. II champion – to be determined by the best record – will receive an additional full point. Such a carrot was added in order to somewhat level the playing field with teams in each division awarded a different percentage. (Each Division I victory is worth one point, each Division II victory 0.8 points and each Division III victory is worth 0.6 points.)
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As of today, five teams from this newspaper’s coverage area are playoff-bound – St. Raphael, Shea, Tolman, Cumberland (8-7) and North Smithfield (9-5). Central Falls (7-8) figures to make it six -- the Warriors still have Ponaganset and Scituate on the schedule, two teams with a combined one league win between them -- while Burrillville (6-10) must win its final two games (Tuesday at N.S., Wednesday at home vs. Johnston) in order to snag an invite.

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