NORTH SMITHFIELD --- If unbeaten North Smithfield was looking for the perfect test to help the Northmen prepare for Thursday night’s duel between the Division III’s other undefeated team, Middletown, the Northmen got one and then some on Tuesday night in the form of red-hot Mount Hope.
The Northmen, who entered the week capturing their seven league games by an average of 27 points, went the distance with the Huskies in a thrilling game that featured 14 lead changes, eight ties, and a boatload of three-pointers (19 of ’em, 11 by the Huskies).
But when the dust settled, the Northmen were able to squeeze out a hard-fought 64-62 win that saw Cody L’Heureux and Matt Walkow team up to score 30 of their points and make some key plays in the final 72 seconds that helped hold off the Huskies.
Walkow, who scored 20 points, 12 in the final 7½ minutes of play, broke a 62-all tie by sinking a pair of free throws with 1:12 on the clock for what would surprisingly be the night’s final points.
And L’Heureux, who bagged seven three-pointers en route to a season-best and game-high 30 points, came out of nowhere to make a huge block on a layup by the Huskies’ leading scorer, Matt Scott (23 points), with 45 seconds to play.
After L’Heureux’s block gave the Northmen back the ball, they slowly worked the ball back up the court and milked as much time as they could off the 35-second shot clock, but with two seconds on it, they got called for traveling, and the Huskies called a time-out to discuss their final shot.
They put the ball into the hands of their top three-point threat, Ben Francis, who nailed six shots from beyond the arc and ended up with 22 points, but he was fouled with 2.3 to play in the game and sent to the line to shoot a 1-and-1.
He missed the first shot, and his teammate, Nick Murgo, raced in and tried to tip in his miss, but it went off the backboard. Another Mount Hope player also tried to tip in that miss, but it also missed the rim, and the buzzer went off to end the game and allow the Northmen and head coach T.J. Ciolfi to breathe a huge sigh of relief.
“We needed this,” he added after talking to his players in a classroom after the contest. “Honestly, you’re not going to win a state championship by beating everybody by 20 (points). We really needed a game (like this) to test our character, and I’m happy with the way we responded.”
The Huskies, who fell to 6-4 in the league (9-4 overall) and were seeking their seventh victory in a row, brought a small team to this game (no players over 6-foot-2), but tried to torment the Northmen with their long-distance shooting and took awfully good care of the ball (just eight turnovers).
“We usually get 12-14 layups a game off steals, traps, turnovers,” said Ciolfi. “(Mount Hope) really didn’t turn the ball over. They might have had four or five turnovers, and none of them were live ball turnovers. I’m impressed with them.”
The largest lead in this game was six points, and the visitors led by that many on three different occasions, the last time at 43-37 with 12:35 still to play in the game. But the Northmen came back with the contest’s biggest run (nine points) on three-pointers by L’Heureux, sandwiched around a three-point play in the paint by Dan Jordan.
“We never trailed in the second half of a game all season long,” said Ciolfi, whose team is also 10-0 overall. “We knew it was going to be a matter of time (before it happened), and we knew it was going to happen sometime this week.”
Middletown also won a nailbiter in this part of Rhode Island on Tuesday night, topping upset-minded Burrillville, 51-45, in overtime in the Broncodome to improve to 9-0 in the division and 13-0 overall.
“Our guys know what’s at stake on Thursday,” offered Ciolfi, whose team will host the Islanders at 7 p.m. “If we win that game, we have a realistic chance to run the table. It’s going to be a very good game.”