It took a while, but everything finally clicked for the Warwick Vets boys’ basketball team at the perfect time Tuesday night.
Visiting cross-town rival Pilgrim, the Hurricanes fell behind early and were held off multiple times as they tried to make a comeback. But on the last try, the ’Canes hit on the combination of pressure defense, hot shooting and pure hustle that they’d been searching for all night. The result was a 9-2 run to close the game and a hard-earned 55-51 victory.
“We hustled at the end, hit some big shots,” said Vets head coach Chris LeBlanc. “We finally came through.”
The game was just the second in league play for both teams. Vets improved to 2-0, while Pilgrim dropped to 0-2. Will Remak scored 17 to pace the ’Canes, while Pilgrim’s Ryan Morris led all scorers with 19.
The ’Canes trailed most of the night thanks to a rough first half and a spirited effort by Pilgrim. But the ’Canes tied the game with 2:36 left on a Scott Camara three, touching off a sequence that included turnovers on three straight Pilgrim possessions, and four quick points for Vets. The Pats were still within striking distance, but they turned it over again with 13 seconds left, and Remak hit a pair of free throws to put the game on ice.
“I think down the stretch, Warwick Vets hit some huge shots, and we kind of wilted under their pressure,” said Pilgrim head coach Mike Batalon. “They’re a tough match-up because they move well without the ball and they don’t need a lot of room to hit shots. Tip your cap to Vets. They hit the shots when they had to.”
Heading into Tuesday, the ’Canes already owned a victory over Toll Gate and were fired up to shoot for a second rivalry win – perhaps too fired up.
Vets made just one of its first 13 shots and watched Pilgrim race to a 10-point lead.
“We took too many first-shot opportunities and that’s not our game,” LeBlanc said. “I think the whole inter-city thing, the boys were all pumped up and coming off Christmas break and the snow day, they weren’t in the routine. I think they were a little frantic at the beginning.”
The turnaround began before halftime, when the ’Canes put together a 9-0 run in the final 2:21. Ryan Wirth hit a pair of free throws, Josh Muto scored twice on fast-break layups and Kyle Agin buried a three. Vets went to the break trailing 21-20.
“We played good defense at the end of the first half and that got us back into it,” LeBlanc said. “Then we started playing our game.”
That game included seven three-pointers after the break, but for as hot as Vets was, the Pats seemed always to have an answer. Morris took over after halftime, getting the ball early and often and scoring Pilgrim’s first 12 points of the second half. When the ’Canes took their first lead with 8:29 left on an Agin floater, Pilgrim responded with five straight points.
Later, Ethan Schneider buried a three after Vets had gone up by one. Back-to-back threes by Remak and Camara gave Vets its biggest lead at 45-43, but Morris scored in the post to tie the game with 4:20 left.
“[Morris] is our leading scorer and he’s going to be our leading scorer on most nights,” said Pilgrim head coach Mike Batalon. “We want our offense to come inside-out. He stepped up and had a big half for us.”
Vets went back up by one on a free throw by Tim Hogan, but Brendan Rix converted an old-fashioned three-point play for Pilgrim. A technical foul was also called on the same sequence, and Schneider hit one of two free throws to put Pilgrim up 49-46 with 2:55 left.
Then the ’Canes delivered.
Camara drilled the three-pointer at 2:36 to tie the game. Pilgrim point guard Blake Doelling was out with leg cramps, and the ’Canes turned up the pressure. They quickly forced a turnover in the press, setting Remak up for a lay-in. He missed it but Camara was there for the putback, giving Vets the 51-49 lead.
Justin Batista – who had been on the bench most of the night – then came up with a steal in the press, which set up Remak for a leaning jumper. Vets led 53-49 with 1:51 left.
“Blake cramped up, so we were without our point guard down the stretch,” Batalon said. “That didn’t do us any favors.”
Batista stole the ball again on Pilgrim’s next trip, but Vets gave it back and Rix took advantage with a run-out layup, making it 53-51 with 1:19 left.
The ’Canes’ next possession was a wild one – they ran clock before a miss, got the ball back on a tie-up, threw a pass away, and watched Pilgrim throw it right back. After all that, Camara went to the line with 23 seconds left and missed the front end of the one-and-one.
Pilgrim went quickly the other way and Letrelle Johnson attacked the basket. Batista struck again, though, stripping the ball away. It went out of bounds off Johnson and Vets took over.
“Justin came up big,” LeBlanc said. “He’s a great soccer player, so he’s got those quick feet. We needed it. We know they’re a power inside team. Morris is a great player and they’ve got guys who can handle the ball. We did our best to try and contain him and then sic Justin on everybody else.”
Remak was fouled with 10 seconds left and hit both free throws to make it a two-possession game. Pilgrim couldn’t get a shot off on a frantic final possession and Vets survived.
Remak scored 15 of his 17 in the second half and made three three-pointers. Camara hit two threes and scored all 11 of his points in the second half, while Agin tallied 14 thanks to four three-pointers. Wirth chipped in six.
“I think they were slipping under our screens and we were a little more composed in the second half,” LeBlanc said. “We had the same looks in the first half but we are all juiced up.”
Morris was a force inside for Pilgrim, scoring 16 second-half points. He has scored 34 points in two league games.
Zach Drake chipped in eight off the bench for the Pats, Doelling scored seven, Rix had five and Johnson, Schneider and Chris Duchesneau tallied four each.
“I’m happy with our effort,” Batalon said. “We really competed tonight in a city rival game. I think we have things we can work on and improve on. I think the outlook is bright for the rest of the season.”
Pilgrim will host St. Patrick on Friday at 6:30 p.m. Vets is also back in action Friday, with a 7 p.m. home game against Moses Brown.
“We’re 2-0 and we’ve got Moses Brown coming up Friday,” LeBlanc said. “It’ll be another good test. I like where we’re standing so far.”