With eight minutes left in Friday's state tournament game, the Toll Gate boys' basketball team had its goal of making the Round of 16 at CCRI well within reach.
And then, very quickly, it slipped away.
With the Titans leading by six at the eight-minute mark, Cumberland went to a full-court press and almost immediately turned the tide. The Clippers scored four quick points, and then after giving up an easy basket, they rode the frenetic pace to 18 consecutive points. When the Titans finally stopped the bleeding, they trailed by 13 with just 2:18 left in the game and could never recover. The Clippers went on to a 61-47 victory and a berth in the Round of 16, where they'll play top-seeded North Kingstown tonight.
"Coming out in the second half, we were riding high and doing a lot of good things," said Toll Gate head coach Tom Rayko. "And then we just kind of panicked. Before you know it, it's a 10 or 12-point game with 2 minutes left. It just got away from us."
That made for a disappointing end to a big night.
The Titans were coming off one of the best regular seasons in the recent history of the program, a 15-3 campaign that included the Division III-Central regular-season championship. A big crowd packed into the Toll Gate gym on Friday for the team's first home playoff game since 2006.
The Clippers came in as the No. 17 seed after an 11-7 season in Division II, and it was clear in the first half that the teams would be evenly-matched. After struggling to take care of the ball and falling behind 13-6, the Titans out-scored the Clippers 21-14 over the rest of the first half. They went to halftime tied at 27-27.
"I think we started out with some opening jitters – playoff game, chance to prove ourselves," Rayko said. "I thought we did a great job to settle down and close out the first half strong. We did a phenomenal job."
And the Titans kept the momentum early in the second half. Ethan Dujon hit a pull-up jumper on the first possession to give Toll Gate its first lead since 6-5. Mike Reyes then scored inside to make it a four-point game.
The Titans continued to play well for the next six minutes, going on a quick 6-0 burst after Cumberland had tied the game. Two free throws by Dujon made it 38-32 with 8:40 left.
And then Cumberland turned up the pressure.
A quick turnover led to a bucket by Greg Joubert. Ben Bradley hit a jumper in the lane on the Clippers' next possession to make it a two-point game.
The Titans broke the press on their next try, getting an easy basket from Tyler Inkley, but that didn't stem the tide. Joubert scored inside to make it a two-point game with seven minutes left, and Bradley tied it after that. Two straight steals on the press then led to a bucket by Christian Spader and two free throws from Bradley.
All of a sudden, the Clippers led by four.
"At the eight-minute mark, I think our kids realized, 'Okay, we've got to turn it on now,'" said Cumberland coach Gary Reedy. "I think Toll Gate was feeling a little bit comfortable and then, all of a sudden, we just put the press on. We got turnovers two times in a row, they were rattled a little bit and before you knew it, we were up."
For the Titans, the press wasn't unexpected. Cumberland had pressed early in the game before backing off. This time, for whatever reason, the Titans struggled to handle it.
"We usually run a four-across set and we space it across the foul line," Rayko said. "We kind of bunched all together and when we got it in, everybody kind of left. We sort of fell right into their trap for a couple of possessions, and that really swung the tide their way. We were still in the game at that point, but just situation after situation didn't go our way."
Even when the Titans did break the press, things went bad. After Bradley made it a four-point game, Nick Carr got wide open behind the defense, caught a long pass and raced for the basket. He went up for a dunk, missed it and then was whistled for a technical foul for hanging on the rim. Cumberland's Dylan Boisclair made both free throws to push the lead to six.
After another Toll Gate turnover, Thomas Lazaras hit a three for the Clippers to push the lead to nine, and Ben Proctor followed with a bucket inside on the heels of a Toll Gate miss.
Then came the dagger.
Toll Gate turned the ball over on its next possession. The Clippers then took some time off the clock before Bradley buried a three to make it a 14-point game.
At that point, Cumberland had out-scored the Titans 22-2 since the 8:40 mark, and the deficit was too much for Toll Gate to overcome. The Clippers made seven of 11 free throws down the stretch to seal the victory.
Bradley led all scorers with 19 points, while Lazaras had 12 and Mitchell Baxter scored 10.
The Titans were led by Carr, who had 12 points and seven blocks. Dujon added 10 points.
"I think it could have gone either way," Rayko said. "I thought it was an even game, and that's kind of what I expected. The only thing left was for us to get to CCRI. That was a big thing for us, but I guess you can't have everything."
And though there was no happy ending, the Titans had no complaints about their season.
"The season overall was phenomenal," Rayko said. "Those kids played as hard as they could in every game, whether it was a 20-point blowout or a one-point game. Everybody who touched the court came to play. They did a wonderful job."