PROVIDENCE — North Smithfield High head coach T.J. Ciolfi didn't arrive at school to take the team bus to Brown University's Pizzitola Center until approximately 1:40 p.m., Sunday.
In the interim, his Northmen hoopsters strolled around the gymnasium and locker room wondering where their chief could be. After all, they not only were about to face East Greenwich for the R.I. Division III Tournament championship, but also try to register the school's first-ever undefeated season.
Ciolfi admitted later it was all part of the plan.
“When we played Johnston (in the semifinal), we got to Roger Williams (University) about two-and-a-half hours before the game, and that was way too much time,” he stated. “We ended up winning by 18 (58-40), but we only led by one (28-27) at halftime. Man, we were stale, and that's what's concerned me.
“I deliberately got to school late because I didn't want these guys in the environment,” he added. “If you're standing around, the anticipation can get to you. It can be a pressure cooker. We didn't get here until about 25 minutes before the tip.”
That different coaching approach proved to be one of a few keys for North Smithfield, which utilized a contest-high 31 points by senior Cody L'Heureux and outstanding defensive rebounding from senior tri-captain Matt Walkow and junior Peter Keenan to outlast the Avengers, 66-55, before a massive crowd late Sunday afternoon.
With the triumph, the Northmen finished with an amazing 24-0 record, and will now turn their attention to competing in the state's Open tourney, slated to start on Wednesday night.
As the buzzer sounded, Ciolfi's crew didn't pile onto the floor in a massive celebration, but the players instead formed a scrum in front of the scorers' table for a group hug. It was hardly an indication of the long hours of work to attain such a lofty goal.
“It feels great; this is a perfect finish to a an undefeated season,” grinned L'Heureux, who also contributed seven rebounds, six steals and four assists. “When we got together after it was over, and we had our arms around each other, not much was said. I don't know, maybe because no words could express it. It's just a tremendous feeling.”
The center-forward tandem of Keenan and Walkow played critical roles in the verdict, the former posting 13 points and 12 boards, while the latter mustered eight points and a squad-leading 16 rebounds.
Senior tri-captain/guard Walker Strick scored a mere point, but did manage four steals and three assists, while fellow captain Daniel Jordan notched eight crucial points, six boards and five assists.
For the scrappy Avengers (16-7 overall), senior guard David Hopkins dropped six treys en route to a team-high 18 points, and classmate Ryan Gavin chipped in 14. Junior center Brandon Eckles collected six points and 11 boards, while sophomore forward Nolan Cooney added another half-dozen points.
“I'm speechless,” laughed Ciolfi afterward. “Man, a perfect season! I'd say this was our Super Bowl. Whatever comes our way next, oh, we'll show up and compete, but this was it; this was our Bowl game.
“When I showed up late, I think the kids knew what I was doing; I think they were all board,” he continued. “They came in loose; you could tell that at the beginning of the game.”
Call that the understatement of this still-young century. Jordan needed only 17 seconds to knock down a trey off glass and give the top-seeded Northmen a lead it never relinquished, and – only 20 seconds after Cooney dropped a 16-footer – L'Heureux planted a three-point bomb to give N.S. a 6-2 advantage.
Eckles' turnaround jumper down low sliced the deficit to 6-4 with 14:42 left, but the Northmen immediately used their full-court trap zone defense to force turnover after turnover. Over the next 3:33, they manufactured a 13-0 surge, with highlights including L'Heureux's coast-to-coast layup, then a trey, a Strick free throw and another L'Heureux trifecta.
When Walkow netted a nifty back-door move with 11:09 remaining, NS led, 19-4.
Slow but sure, however, the Avengers clawed their way back.
Following Walkow's layin off a steal at the 8:22 mark, Gavin hit a turnaround 15-footer and Hopkins a three-pointer to slice it to 25-15. In fact, Eckles' two foul shots with 4:59 made it 29-20. A pair of treys from L'Heureux and junior Breno Pena gave NS a 35-20 cushion, though Hopkins drained two himself and Cooney converted a fast-break flier with 72 ticks left; that allowed E.G. to hustle into the locker room trailing only 39-30.
When L'Heureux knocked home a three with 14:03 left in the final session, the Northmen again led by 12 at 44-32, but Eckles' back-in turnaround and Gavin's short, one-hand jumper not quite three minutes later knifed the lead to 44-38.
Hopkins' baseline bomb with 10:25 remaining cut it to 46-41, and culminated the Avengers' 9-2 run in a 3:38 sequence.
Actually, sophomore Kyle Matus landed a trey of his own to pull to within four at 50-46 at 6:16, but Walkow drained a spinning left-hander and Jordan managed a conventional three-point play to push the lead back to 55-46.
At the 2:07 mark and the Avengers trailing 57-50, Ciolfi – sensing victory – peered at his bench and began clapping, his subs immediately followed suit. L'Heureux canned a pair from the charity stripe with 73 ticks left, then forced a turnover 10 seconds later; that's when the Northmen began to understand their feat had been realized.
“They were only down four? It never seemed that close to me,” Ciolfi offered. “It was always a two-possession game, and four is the same as six to me. We always had that cushion. Honestly, down the stretch, we were playing the clock more than we playing our opponent.
“It was two things: The fast start we had, and the fact we gave EG minimal second-chance opportunities in the second half,” he continued. “Matt and Peter controlled the boards the last six-seven minutes, and Dan (Jordan) had two post-up buckets that really helped. It was amazing, because we haven't called for him to post-up in two years!”
Sighed E.G. coach Matt Records as his team filed from his locker room: “Obviously, North Smithfield is a phenomenal team; they have an answer for everything you do, whether you're playing zone or man (defense). We had hoped at halftime to turn it into more of an uptempo game, force some turnovers and get some baskets in transition. We wanted to force them into rushing shots.
“Unfortunately, we just turned the ball over too much late in the game, and we didn't execute when we needed to,” he added. “Our bigs were posting up Walkow and Keenan, but our guards didn't stick their noses in there enough to get some boards.”
Ciolfi claimed the Avengers played extremely well, especially in the final stanza.
“I thought we had some missed opportunities in the first half; if we could have taken our 15-point lead into 19-20, we could coast, but they picked it up a notch and cut it back to nine,” he said. “We missed some shots, and their No. 24 (Hopkins) hit some big three-pointers.
“The best part of the day was when Keenan was at the free-throw line with about a minute left,” he added. “The crowd started chanting, 'Un-de-feat-ed!' and, oh, I heard it. I just stepped back and watched our guys take it all in. They embraced it; that was incredible!”
Strick, whom Ciolfi calls his unsung hero for being “right where he's supposed to be all the time,” chuckled when asked about his coach's late arrival.
“Actually, Matt (Walkow) made a joke about it,” he smiled. “He's always telling us, if we're late, 'You guys aren't ready to play! Why the heck are you so late?' Matt just told him, 'Hey, you're not ready to coach. Where were you?'
“I guess the way we played against Johnston was the reason,” he continued. “I'm just so happy for everyone. We've worked so hard for this, and we're thrilled. I'll never forget this.”