NORTH SMITHFIELD -- With all due respect to other Division III squads with title-game aspirations, if another North Smithfield-Middletown matchup isn’t contested in the state final in March, it would be a tragedy.
This one, honestly, was that entertaining.
With 1.8 seconds left in regulation, and the Northmen trailing 50-49, it appeared senior guard Walker Strick had landed a baseline trey to lift the hosts to a thrilling, come-from-behind 52-51 victory over the Islanders.
The two officials, however, indicated the scoreboard was incorrect, and deemed an overtime session necessary.
Middletown mustered a three-pointer from Justin Sellar only 19 ticks into the four-minute extra session, and – after senior tri-captain Matthew Walkow and classmate Daniel Jordan both missed easy baskets – Justin Bailey dropped a tip-in to give the visitors a 56-51 cushion.
Just 12 seconds after Bailey’s solid putback, Strick drained a three-pointer, then senior Cody L’Heureux planted a driving layup to knot the score for the 10th time with 1:06 left.
Only 16.3 ticks existed when Jordan was fouled. He went to the charity stripe and missed the first, but canned the second to give the Northmen a 57-56 advantage.
Once Strick stripped the ball from senior guard Mark Powell at the buzzer, head coach T.J. Ciolfi’s crew finally could celebrate the 57-56 triumph before a packed house at the Lovett Memorial Gymnasium.
“I thought we were down by two at the end of regulation, so my instructions to the kids were to go for the tie, unless someone was open,” Ciolfi responded after his team improved to 12-0 overall and 9-0 in league play. “They found Strick open in the left corner, and he hit the three that I thought won the game.
“The refs, though, said we had been down three, so they corrected the scoreboard; that shot just tied the game,” he added. “I honestly can say I never thought we’d lose. It just wasn’t in my mind-set. Most of these guys are seniors, and I trust ‘em. More importantly, they trust each other. That’s why all five guys on the floor took a shot in the overtime period.
“It’s a testimony to their trust in one another.”
Junior forward Peter Keenan led all Northmen with a double-double (15 points and 10 rebounds), while fellow big man (and tri-captain) Matthew Walkow closed with eight points and 11 boards. L’Heureux contributed 12 points and three steals, while Strick added 11 points and Jordan six.
For the Islanders – who lost for the first time this winter and fell to 14-1 overall, 9-1 league) – Bailey netted a tilt-high 16 points, senior Randy Butler 11 and junior Connor Russ and Sellar 10 each.
North Smithfield had taken a 27-22 cushion into the break after recording an 8-0 run in the final 2:07 (Strick highlighting it with his first “three-bomb”).
But when Sellar drained a three-pointer with 13:01 left, it knotted the contest up once more at 29-29. The Northmen regained the lead at 32-31 after L’Heureux landed a foul shot, but Ryan Hetland – the most diminutive player on the floor – dropped a bucket and Bailey a running short jumper to ignite the Islanders’ 14-4 flurry.
When Sellar “twicked” the net for a trey at the 5:28 mark, the visitors had taken a 45-36 lead. But Keenan hit a three of his own, then turned a steal into a coast-to-coast layup, but couldn’t hit the three-point play after being fouled. L’Heureux followed with a fast-break layin off a turnover (the Islanders made 23 on this night, as opposed to the hosts 13), and that made the score 45-43 with 4:06 remaining.
Walkow canned a freebie with 3:24 left, but Middletown fought back with Bailey’s putback and tip-in to again push the North Smithfield deficit back to five, but Keenan knocked down a baseline six-footer and L’Heureux a pair of foul shots to cut it back to 49-48.
With 8.4 left in regulation, Walkow converted one of two free throws to bring it back to 51-49, though Strick’s trey apparently won the game for the Northmen.
The good news? Ciolfi’s contingent weathered the storm in the early moments of OT and remained undefeated.
“Now we have a new goal, and that’s to go unbeaten,” Ciolfi stated boldly afterward. “It wasn’t our goal before, but it is now. At the beginning of the season, that was a pipedream, but now we’re feeling it’s possible to go 21-0.
“We’d love to do that and earn the top seed for the tournament,” he added. “If we do, then maybe we can avoid playing Middletown in the playoffs, at least until the final.”
With a grin, he confessed, “That’s a great team they have there. I don’t want to play them again unless I have to.”