NORTH SMITHFIELD – North Smithfield won its first three league games in Division III-North by an average of nearly 22 points.
First-year NS coach TJ Ciolfi knew No. 4 wouldn’t be the same. Facing the Northmen in Thursday’s league showdown was equally-unbeaten Johnston, another talented squad that has beaten its three opponents by almost 26 points per outing.
"The teams are exactly the same,” Ciolfi said. “We are almost as identical in the way we play.”
In a fast-paced contest that never let up from start to finish, the Panthers were able to survive an entertaining battle before a full-house at Lovett Gymnasium with an 84-70 decision. The difference in the outcome proved to be the Panthers work underneath the basket where it scored a high percentage of their shots.
“That was the difference,” confirmed Johnston coach Steve DeMeo Sr. ‘That was the thing that we worked on prior to the game. I thought both teams shoot the ball well. Both teams want to run the ball and that’s indicative of the 84-70 score. (We) are relentless on the boards. That’s what we have worked on all week, making sure we control the boards, and the kids did a great job.”
The Panthers were paced by a game-best 26 points from senior captain Ryan Anderson, who was a big factor in the second half. Junior teammate Evan Hopson finished with 23 points. North Smithfield had a combined 42 points from senior Carlos Guzman and junior Matt Walkow with Guzman netting 22 points, including six 3-pointers.
After talking with his team after the game, Ciolfi admitted his Northmen were out-muscled by a noticeably-bigger Panther squad.
“They got every loose ball; second and third shots was a key,” he said. “Every time we had a run, we had a mental mistake. We’d cut it to eight (points), turnover. We’d cut it to five, turnover. We cut it to 12, missed free throws. It was every little thing. It shouldn’t happen at home.”
The court certainly resembled a running track the minute the squads began action. Johnston raced out to a 13-5 advantage the first four minutes and by the midway point held a 20-9 advantage. Except for a single free throw, the remaining points scored by the Panthers were off of layups or putbacks.
While the Northmen exhibited speed on the court, the Panthers always appeared a step or two faster. And even when a Johnston player misfired on a pass to a teammate, another one always seemed to be there to negate the turnover and make good use of the ball.
The Northmen climbed to within seven twice during the initial half and went into the locker room trailing by a 43-33 advantage that was solidified on a 3-pointer from Guzman with just one tick left on the clock.
If not for 10 points from Walkow and five 3-pointers tossed by the Northmen before the break, the 10-point deficit could have been even larger.
Walkow got the Northmen to within six points (43-37) just a minute into the second half by scoring on a pair of hard layups against a tight Johnston defense. But the Panthers came right back with six unanswered points, including a coast-to-coast layup from senior Shykeel Colon to give the visitors a 49-37 lead.
Walkow converted on a layup and Guzman nailed a 3-pointer to cut the advantage back to seven points, at 49-42. Johnston came back with a 9-0 run and the Northmen could never recover.
Guzman tried to spur his teammates with his accuracy behind the arc. He had five of his six 3-pointers in the latter half, including back-to-back treys to make the score 63-52 with 7:08 left.
“He has been hot and cold,” Ciolfi said. “I think he’s had three games where he has scored 20 and three games where he has scored six. But when you catch him on a night like this, you can be able to ride him when he makes his shots. He played excellent shooting the basketball.”
Anderson had 15 of his points in the second half for Johnston, hitting numerous clutch shots when the Northmen were fighting back.
“He’s the leader,” DeMeo said. “Everything stems from him. That’s how he’s been. He’s a four-year starter. He’s been through all the wars.”
With the interscholastic league holding just one overall state championship game, the Northmen and Panthers will face each other just one other time. It will be their season finale on Feb. 22 at Johnston.
“It’s the last game of the year so hopefully we can iron out some of the kinks,” Ciolfi said. “I think that it will probably be a better played game in terms of turnovers and that kind of thing. That game could be for the division. It’s definitely circled on my calendar.”
“We were talking before the game about the Division III playoffs and how they are not doing them anymore,” DeMeo said. “That’s good. We only play them one more time and then we don’t see them anymore.”