With Middletown standout Justin Bailey limping around the court in the first half of Friday’s game, the Pilgrim boys’ basketball team was able to stay close with the unbeaten Islanders, trailing by just two at the break.
Unfortunately for the Pats, a little rest was all Bailey needed.
The 6-foot-4 senior came out refreshed in the second half, as he dominated on the defensive end and scored 12 of his game-high 16 points to lead Middletown to a 53-33 win.
Pilgrim got 14 points from Ryan Morris, but it made little difference in what was a lopsided game for the final 16 minutes.
“My best player sprained his ankle in the first half,” Middletown head coach Kevin Lendrum said. “Even in the second half he really wasn’t moving that well, but he was moving a lot better. I think he’s the best player in Division III and one of the best players in the state, and he was moving a lot better. That makes a huge difference.”
Pilgrim, which had won back-to-back games over St. Patrick and Moses Brown heading into Friday’s tilt, fell to 2-3 in Division III-Central with the loss, tied for second with Warwick Vets and a half-game behind 3-3 Juanita Sanchez. Middletown improved its record to 5-0 and is one of two unbeatens in all of D-III.
The Pats had no answers on offense. With Bailey and fellow big men Ryan Traeger and Jacob Reilly controlling the paint on the defensive end – and limiting Morris – Pilgrim was forced to attack from the perimeter.
It shot just 2-of-22 from three-point range on its way to its lowest point total of the season. Pilgrim hadn’t scored below 50 in a league game prior to the loss.
“Middletown plays great defense,” Pilgrim head coach Mike Batalon said. “We had an off-shooting night, in large part due to Middletown’s defense. Then we didn’t play with as much intensity in the second half.”
Middletown led 18-16 at halftime thanks to a 7-3 run to close out the half. The Pats led by as many as three in the first half. On the opening possession of the second half, Blake Doelling hit a short pull-up jumper to tie the game at 18.
Middletown came back down the court and James McQuade missed a three-pointer, but Bailey rose up from the paint to tip the ball in.
That was a sign of things to come, as Pilgrim would never be tied or grab the lead again.
“When he’s jumping and he’s playing a little bit, he’s a difference maker,” Lendrum said of Bailey.
The teams traded buckets before Bailey scored inside, was fouled and made the free throw to up Middletown’s lead to 25-20. Pilgrim got back to 26-23 on a Morris old-fashioned three-point play, but jumpers by Connor Murphy, Reilly and Bailey put Middletown up 32-25. One free throw from Bailey made it 33-25, and on the other end of the court he swatted away a Morris shot from the block. On the ensuing possession, Ryan Gross scored and Middletown had a 10-point lead with just under nine minutes to play.
“We didn’t do a great job of moving without the ball today,” Batalon said. “We couldn’t really get into our offense.”
Middletown only extended its lead from there. Out of a Pilgrim timeout, the Islanders got four straight points from Reilly, then a bucket from Bailey and another from Reilly. Morris hit a free throw during that time, but the score was 43-26.
Morris took just seven shots in the second half, as Middletown was committed to making Pilgrim win the game from the outside.
“I haven’t seen them play this year yet, but I knew Morris from last year," Lendrum said. “I knew he was really strong. I knew we were going to have to get him out of the paint as much as possible.”
Middletown led by 18, 48-30, after one free throw by McQuade before Pilgrim made its last field goal of the game – a three-pointer by Doelling – with 2:54 to play. Middletown scored the final five points of the contest.
Morris had 14 for Pilgrim, while Doelling had seven, Michael Broccoli had four, Chris Duchesneau and Letrelle Johnson had three each and Tyler Perry had two. After Bailey’s 16, McQuade had 11 and Reilly had 10.
It wasn’t all bad for Pilgrim, considering the level of competition and how close the game was in the first half.
“Even tonight in the first half, it showed we can hang with the best teams in our league,” Batalon said. “We’ve got to execute for 32 minutes.”
And the Pats are improving, especially from where they have been the last few years. Their road win over Moses Brown was a big one, as the Quakers are 4-2 at the moment.
“We were down six at the half and we played really well down the stretch,” Batalon said. “Beating a good team on the road I think was a confidence builder.”
Pilgrim will have two road games this week. Today, it travels to 5-1 Mt. Hope for a 5 p.m., tip before heading to 3-2 Scituate on Friday for a 7 p.m. game.
“Overall tonight, maybe a little disappointment in the second half,” Batalon said. “But we’re improving.”