PAWTUCKET — If Tolman High ever fits the pieces together, the Tigers could be a tough out in the Division II playoffs.
It is coach Mike Kayata’s job to develop his players into a cohesive unit over the next seven weeks, trying to get the most out of a roster that contains an explosive scoring guard in Juan Velez, a 6-foot-7 junior center named Jon Percy who is a sleeping giant, and several role players who might hold the key to this team’s ultimate outcome.
On Thursday night, the Tigers showed just enough of their talent to shake off a stubborn Lincoln team by a 58-45 margin. Tolman improved to 2-2 in league play while the Lions fell to 0-4.
Velez broke open a close game with three straight three-point hoops at the six-minute mark of the second half, turning a shaky 40-38 lead into a 49-38 cushion. The three hoops came in the span of 57 seconds.
“Juan got hot quick,” said Kayata of his junior guard, who finished with a game-high 22 points. “He broke the game open right there.”
Lincoln coach Kent Crooks had the same opinion.
“Velez is a very good player,” Crooks said. “We were playing them even and then he got hot. We took a couple of ill-advised shots, turned the ball over a couple times. You can’t do that against an explosive team like Tolman.”
Percy, who picked up three early fouls and went to the bench in the first half, was scoreless at halftime. The gangly center with the long arms came out on a mission after intermission, blocking shots and taking the ball to the hoop. He scored eight of the Tigers’ first 10 points in the second half, finishing with 11 points in all, including a pair of three-point plays. Percy also blocked seven shots.
“Jonathan is a good free throw shooter,” Kayata said. “If we can get him to go to the basket, he’s going to score points, no matter what.”
The Tigers also got a strong game from senior guard Justin Zetina, who finished with 11 points.
“We had three guys in double figures tonight,” Kayata said. “I thought Justin had a huge impact on the game. But we need to find a fourth scorer, too.”
The Tigers compete in Division II-Central, which owns two high-scoring clubs in North Providence and Shea, who are both 3-1. The Cougars average 75 points per game. Shea, which hosts unbeaten Rogers tonight, checks in with 65 points per game while Tolman is averaging just 58 points after four league games.
“We’re a different team when Percy is going to the basket,” Kayata admitted.
Lincoln has its own problems. The Lions lack scorers, even though they have a solid point guard in Jon McCourt. They are averaging only 43.5 points per league game this season, which gives them very little margin for error.
Lincoln came out with a good plan on Thursday night. McCourt got the first two baskets of the game, one on a drive and the second with a pull-up jumper after a nice crossover dribble that shed a defender.
The Lions led 14-9 on a basket by Andrew Juckett. Tolman went on a 5-0 run to tie the game. Velez converted a three-point play before Rodney Jean-Pierre tied the game again at 16-16 with his only hoop of the night.
Lincoln, which created 19 turnovers with a good half-court press, scored seven straight points for a 23-16 lead with three minutes left in the first half. Juckett was blocking shots near the hoop and the Lions were playing with some confidence.
Then Velez started to get hot. He hit a jumper to stop the Lincoln run, then made three of four free throws. Zetina stole and ball and laid it in to cut Lincoln’s lead to 25-23. Jalen Dupre drove the length of the small Tolman floor to tie the game and then Velez, in a sign of things to come, drained a three to give Tolman a 28-25 lead at halftime.
Lincoln moved to a 34-34 tie before Velez put Tolman ahead for good with a drive to the hoop at the 8:50 mark. Percy added his third hoop of the half for a 38-34 lead. And after Lincoln’s Joe Yankee used his quick first step to blow by Percy for a pair of layups, Velez took over the game, draining his threes from the top of the key to give Tolman an insurmountable 49-38 lead.
“I thought we made a good adjustment to their press in the second half,” Kayata pointed out.
Yankee finished with 13 points for the Lions. Ryan Kelly, who finally found his confidence late in the game, scored eight of his 10 points in the second half. McCourt went scoreless in the second half and finished with nine points.
“We’re like a junior college team,” Crooks said. “We had seven seniors last year who were very experienced and understood what they wanted to do. This team is very new and inexperienced. They play hard and are usually competitive, like they were tonight. We were in this game for 26 of the 32 minutes but those six minutes where we played poorly really hurt us.”
Lincoln will host Pilgrim tonight in a battle of winless teams. Something’s got to give.