Toll Gate led for just 12 seconds in the first half of Tuesday’s boys’ basketball game against Ponaganset. That’s not what the Titans needed or expected against the 4-6 Chieftains.
But when they went to the locker room at halftime, the Titans didn’t get much fire and brimstone from head coach Tom Rayko.
“We were down three going into halftime and I really looked at the game and said here’s your two things: you’re getting lazy on certain possessions of defense and you’re playing sloppy offense,” Rayko said. “I said, ‘If you can clean those two things up, I think we’re the better team and we’re going to win this game.’ That was literally my halftime speech.”
And it really was that easy.
After falling behind by eight in the opening minutes of the second half, the Titans steadily took control. Their solid defense forced 11 second-half turnovers and limited the Chieftains to six field goals in the final 13 minutes of the game. At the other end, the Titans took a patient approach on offense and consistently got the shots they wanted.
It all added up to a big second half and a 66-55 victory.
“I felt they definitely kicked up the intensity on defense and I thought we protected the ball a little better on offense,” Rayko said. “I truly think that’s what gave us the win. We just had to clean up the game a little bit from our end.”
The Titans had lost three of four games coming in to fall to 6-5. The defeats came against teams with a combined 28-4 record. Against a sub-.500 Ponaganset team, the Titans needed to take care of business.
The Chieftains had their way in the first half, though, building a 7-2 lead and answering every Toll Gate run with one of their own. After the Titans took their only lead at 21-20, the Chieftains switched to a 2-3 zone and watched Toll Gate fire away – and come up empty – from deep. In the meantime, they put together a 7-0 run.
Toll Gate got a jumper from Ben Mann and a three-point play from Kyle Toolin just before the break, but Ponaganset still went to the locker room up three.
The Chieftains were coming off consecutive lopsided victories over Warwick Vets and Pilgrim and were ready to push for another one over a Warwick school.
“Ponaganset was really coming on,” Rayko said. “They almost did the steamroll through Warwick.”
For the first two minutes of the second half, the trend continued. Kyle Johnson hit a three on Ponaganset’s first possession, and a Toll Gate turnover led to a layup for Alex Irace. The Chieftains led 36-28 with 13:51 left.
And then the Titans finally asserted themselves.
At the defensive end, they forced four turnovers and held Ponaganset without a field goal for nearly four minutes. At the other end, they stopped settling for outside shots and went to the basket. The result was three straight trips to the free throw line, with John Coleman hitting two, Tyler Inkley making one of two and Ben Mann sinking one of two. Zach Mitchell then hit a pull-up 18-footer to make it a two-point game.
Ponaganset briefly got back on track after that and went up 42-38 on a Michael Jason layup with 8:35 left.
But the Titans were undeterred.
Mann drove to the basket for a layup on Toll Gate’s next trip, and the Titans blocked a shot at the other end. Coleman then scored on a putback to tie the game.
After a Ponaganset miss, Evan Stamps got to the line and made both shots to give Toll Gate its first lead since the four-minute mark of the first half.
Derryck Anderson forced Scott Peterson into a turnover on Ponaganset’s next possession, which led to a layup by Toolin on a back-door pass from Stamps. Another turnover set Mann up for a free throw that capped a 7-0 run. Toll Gate led 47-42.
“They definitely picked up the intensity,” Rayko said. “We kind of buckled down in man-to-man defense and just stayed home – get hands in faces and make them take tough shots.”
The Titans were also patient when they had the ball.
“First half, we had a jacked three-pointer, long rebound and a fast break for the other team,” Rayko said. “The very next possession, ball movement, reversal, bang – easy bucket. That’s all they needed to do and I thought they did a much better job moving the ball and getting it into the paint. I thought the game plan was followed much better in the second half.”
A free throw by Ponaganset momentarily stemmed the tide, but Tyler Inkley scored inside and got fouled. He missed the free throw, but Mann grabbed the rebound and Inkley later scored on a putback, giving Toll Gate a 51-43 lead.
Ponaganset got back within five a minute later, but Toolin was left open for a three at the top of the key and buried it to push the lead back to eight. It was the first three-pointer of the game for the Titans, but it wouldn’t be the last. With the lead still at eight, Toolin sank another three from the left wing with 2:09 left, and that one proved to be the dagger.
John Murphy hit five of six free throws in the final minute to put the game on ice.
Mann led the Titans with 16 points, while Coleman and Toolin chipped in 13 each. Inkley and Murphy had nine apiece.
The Titans also got big contributions from their bench. While Stamps, Anderson and Mitchell only scored two points each, they played crucial minutes with starters in foul trouble and helped key the comeback.
The Titans are now one win away from clinching a spot in the Division III playoffs. They’ll try to get it Friday when they visit Burrillville at 6:45 p.m. The Broncos are 5-5.
“We need one win to get to the playoffs so that’s really our major goal right now,” Rayko said. “We want that eighth win to try to make sure we clinch a playoff spot and then we’ll go from there.”