NORTH SMITHFIELD – For high school hoops fans who have paid attention to North Smithfield’s Matt Walkow and Peter Keenan this season, there was one play in their last game that typified just how in sync these two young men are on the basketball floor.
Camped way underneath the basket and his sight lines distorted by several Prout defenders, Keenan somehow managed to catch a glimpse of Walkow gliding down the right lane. With total confidence in his teammate’s hands, Keenan whipped a pass that resulted in an almost-too-easy two points. The highlight-reel sequence was a seminal moment in the game, the Keenan-to-Walkow connection giving the Northmen their first lead with just over four minutes remaining in the quarterfinals of the R.I. Open State Tournament.
“Pete could have easily gone up to draw the foul,” said T.J. Ciolfi, North Smithfield’s head coach. “That was such an unselfish play.”
In the stands at Providence College’s Alumni Hall on Sunday night, some fans must have pondered – albeit briefly – whether Keenan has eyes in the back of his head. What Keenan does possess is an empathic understanding of where his running mate is located on the floor at all times, a mindset likewise shared by Walkow.
“We always know that when one person gets the ball, the other one will be free on the other side of the basket to pass to,” states Keenan.
Added Walkow, “We understand what the other one is going to do, so we don’t try to step outside of what we do.”
“They really do share the ball,” stresses Ciolfi.
Without Walkow and Keenan working in roundball harmony, there’s probably no undefeated season at North Smithfield and definitely no Final Four matchup against Classical. Thanks to their efforts, the Northmen’s dream season will continue under the bright lights at URI’s Ryan Center Friday night.
Walkow and Keenan are both listed at 6-foot-3, but that’s where the similarity ends. What makes this tandem a matchup nightmare is that each has a skill set that is the opposite of the other. Generally, Walkow is stationed around the foul line, a spot that allows him to survey the floor and to either create for himself or swing the ball to a teammate. His shooting touch extends beyond the 3-point arc with plenty of teams finding out the hard way that you can ill afford to lose sight of No. 22 in a Northmen jersey.
Walkow’s partner in crime has another set of responsibilities. A tight end on the football team, Keenan is a grinder who loves the challenge of fighting for space down on the blocks. He credits his lunch pail mentality to his home environment, where he’s the fourth oldest of six brothers.
“I love doing the dirty work and don’t really need the attention,” says Keenan while seated alongside his pal Walkow in a North Smithfield High classroom earlier this week. “Fighting for every territorial inch is something that translates to the floor rather easily for me.”
Walkow is appreciative of Keenan’s willingness to wield the hammer and play the bad cop. “Usually the bigger, stronger guys play Pete and I get the slower ones.”
In the past, North Smithfield’s modus operandi was to give the ball to Walkow and get out of his way. As a junior last season, he averaged 22 points. This season, Walkow’s scoring average is down six points. Such a drop-off may appear concerning, but the talent surrounding Walkow has improved by leaps and bounds – so much so that the scoring star has no problem in deferring to senior sharpshooter Cody L’Heureux or Keenan, who’s emerged as a serious threat this season.
“During my sophomore and junior years, I’d get the ball and look to score,” Walkow said. “Now it’s like I can look to either pass or score.”
The leap Keenan made between his sophomore and junior years is something that has Ciolfi beaming with pride. The player himself attributes his increased role to a summer regimen that would begin at the gym before heading over to the basketball courts adjacent to the high school’s turf football field. The strong work ethic continued during the season as Keenan is often the last one to leave the gym.
“Just doing the little things that would help me become a better player,” smiles Keenan, who’s third on the team with 13.1 scoring average.
His coach took it a step further, noting that the Northmen now run plays specifically for Keenan.
“From one year to the next, Peter improved more than anybody else on the team,” Ciolfi said. “He’s a 32-minute guy and it’s made Matt’s job more natural for him.”
Each player has enjoyed a moment in the spotlight during the Northmen’s run to the penultimate game of the high school season. Keenan’s came during the early minutes of the second half against Shea in the opening game of the state tourney when the pivot man touched the ball repeatedly on his way to notching 10 straight points.
“You can’t guard him with your second best post player,” said Ciolfi about Keenan rising to the occasion against the Raiders to the tune of 20 points and 11 rebounds in 30 minutes.
While Keenan was rolling, Walkow was feeling under the weather and struggling to get on track. Sensing that he was more of a burden than an asset, Walkow told Ciolfi during a break in the Shea game to ride Keenan and Bruno Pena’s hot hand for as long as possible.
“He sacrificed minutes and points so we could win the game,” Ciolfi said. “Matt could have easily led the state in scoring if we kept pumping him the ball like we did last year, but he hasn’t complained about shots once.”
Sunday against Prout saw roles change hands with Keenan missing several shots from close range to close out the first half, one that saw North Smithfield tally just 13 points. Serving as the second-half catalyst to a comeback that you had see in person to believe, Walkow pumped in five field goals while making 11 trips to the free-throw line. He finished with a game-high 22 points in his team’s 58-50 vanquishing of their South County foe.
With Keenan down on the blocks and Walkow free to roam, the Northmen pack a 1-2 punch that’s hard to completely knock off kilter. Just when you think you’ve got one of them bottled up, the other one is right there to offer a reminder that double teams may not prove the most effective means.
Summed up Ciolfi, “They’re not just the tall kids who happen to be on the basketball team. It’s a nice combination.”