Warwick Vets trailed for 30 minutes and three seconds – all but 1:57 – of Sunday’s boys’ basketball game against Toll Gate. Over the latter part of that 30 minutes, though, the deficit was shrinking. And then, when it mattered most, it was gone.
Trailing by 12 with 10:09 left, Vets out-scored Toll Gate 21-7 the rest of the way and 10-0 over the final 2:31. Kevin Martin’s bucket inside with 58 seconds left gave the ’Canes their first lead since 8-7 and they held it tight for a 48-46 victory.
“I think we finally decided to play some defense,” said head coach Chris LeBlanc. “The final eight minutes or so, we picked it up and we were able to hold them down. To Toll Gate’s credit, they played inspired. We got lucky.”
Vets improved to 9-7 in league play with the victory, its second of the year against Toll Gate. The Titans fell to 5-12.
Vets led 2-0 and 8-7 in the early going, but the Titans took control with a 7-0 burst in the first half and didn’t trail again until the final minute. Adam Brice dominated inside with a game-high 19 points and Jacob Johnson buried three three-pointers on his way to an 11-point night. The Titans upped a two-point halftime lead to 12 in the first five minutes of the second half. Austin Giard’s three-pointer at 10:09 made it 39-27.
From there, Toll Gate would score just seven more points.
The Vets comeback started with a 9-0 run fueled by defense. Before the surge, Vets had committed 11 turnovers to Toll Gate’s four. But against a full-court press and a newly-energized man-to-man defense in the half-court, the Titans gave the ball up on four consecutive possessions, and Vets took advantage. Josh Muto hit two free throws and buried a three-pointer, Ryan Wirth hit a free throw and Israel Thomas converted a three-point play, making it 39-36 with 7:16 left.
“I don’t think we ran out of steam,” said Toll Gate coach Tom Rayko. “I think we’re not experienced on the varsity level, so trying to sustain that 10, 12-point lead against a good team is still a challenge.”
The Titans did their best to hold on. Brice scored inside off a dish from Kyle McGuire to push the lead back to five. After Vets cut it to three on a second-chance bucket by Thomas, Toll Gate’s Josh Coleman – fresh off the bench for the first time all day – drained a three from the corner to make it 44-38 with 4:08 to go. After two straight empty possessions by Vets, Burt Lu made it 46-38 with a layup.
But there was still 2:55 left – and Vets was still coming.
Thomas hit a driving layup to make it a six-point game and Muto turned a steal into a coast-to-coast layup to get it to four.
After a hook shot by Brice rolled off, Scott Camara found Will Remak on the left wing and the senior standout – who had been cold all night – knocked down a three to make it a one-point game with 1:16 to go.
The Titans had two chances to pad the lead on their next trip, but Giard missed a runner and Johnson mis-fired on a jumper after an offensive rebound.
At the other end, the ’Canes got the ball to Martin as the defense was still getting set, and he muscled in a shot while getting fouled. He missed the free throw, but the bucket had given Vets the 47-46 lead.
It was a big play for the 6-foot-7 junior.
“He started varsity, wasn’t getting the playing time so we put him on JV,” LeBlanc said. “He’s built some confidence back. He’s a good player when he has his head in the game and the last four or five games, he’s really had his head in the game. He’s a positive for us.”
The Titans still had life and would end up with two more chances. Giard missed on a three on their next trip, but on a Muto one-and-one free throw, Vets was whistled for a lane violation, giving the ball back to Toll Gate. With 23 seconds left, the Titans took over and nearly lost the ball twice before Giard ended up with it. His runner in the lane was short with four seconds left.
Camara was fouled on the rebound and hit one of two free-throws. McGuire got off a desperation heave from half-court and it hit the rim, but wouldn’t go.
The ’Canes survived.
“It was effort and it was heart,” LeBlanc said. “It was not wanting to lose to a city school.”
Muto scored 14 to lead the ’Canes. Martin added nine, with Thomas, Remak and Wirth scoring seven each. Camara tallied four.
Vets now has the seventh-best record in Division III and a chance to rise higher this week. The team was set to play St. Patrick on Monday, with results unavailable at press time, before another rivalry match-up with even more at stake against 10-6 Pilgrim tonight. The Pats visit Vets at 7 p.m.
“Showdown on Tuesday against Pilgrim,” LeBlanc said. “That’ll be fun.”
Toll Gate will finish the season tonight against first-place Juanita Sanchez. The Titans are likely out of the playoff picture, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. After a rough start, they won three games this month to stay in the mix. With only two seniors on the floor Sunday, the foundation is there for the future.
“We had a chance to make the playoffs as the season was winding down, which is always a bonus,” Rayko said. “We started out slow – younger team, new coaching staff. Those are two big things. I give a lot of credit to the kids. They stuck with it. Halfway through, they really turned the corner. They played great.”