Coming off a disappointing loss and five minutes away from another one, the Bishop Hendricken basketball team was in the most vulnerable spot it had been in all season on Sunday.
But instead of accepting a second consecutive defeat, the Hawks exploded for their biggest victory of the year.
Down 41-36 at home to a Coventry team that is one of the state’s best, Hendricken got two enormous three-pointers on consecutive possessions from senior E.J. Nygren and 11 points in the final 4:52 from junior Matt Duffie to rally for a 61-49 win over the Oakers.
In just under five minutes, the Hawks played perhaps their best stretch of basketball this season and out-scored Coventry 25-8.
Hendricken is 10-2 now, leads Division I-South and is in third place in the overall statewide standings. Coventry is 10-4 and is in fourth place in the overall standings. Had the Oakers won, they would have jumped the Hawks both in the D-I standings and the state standings.
“I’ve been telling them all year long – you’ve got to play tough,” said Hendricken head coach Jamal Gomes. “Play within yourself, and you play mentally and physically tough. You can’t back down and you can’t get too over-amped up. You’ve got to find that happy medium and our guys did today.”
The win was even more gratifying for the Hawks because it came on the heels of a tough 58-57 loss to a .500 Central team on Friday, which snapped a five-game winning streak.
“These guys don’t want to let each other down,” Gomes said. “We bounced back. And that’s the sign of a good team is how you bounce back from a tough loss. We bounced back today.”
It wasn’t an ideal situation for much of the game, as Hendricken never led until Nygren’s first three-pointer with 3:35 left gave the Hawks a 43-41 advantage. Coventry led by as many as eight in the first half and as many as six in the second half.
Hendricken just never quit. The comeback began after Coventry’s Joseph Foley scored four straight points to give the Oakers the five-point lead at 41-36.
Duffie was able to score inside on Hendricken’s next possession and Foley missed a shot on the other end of the court before Duffie forced his way to the basket again to cut Coventry’s lead to one point.
The Oakers tried to rush the ball up the court but turned it over to Hendricken freshman Justin Mazzulla, who quickly turned back up the court and found Nygren by himself in the left corner. The pass was on the money and so was the shot, giving Hendricken a two-point lead.
Again Coventry tried to run up the court, but it fell victim to the exact same thing. The ball rolled loose and ended up in Mazzulla’s hands once more, and he found Nygren in the very same corner spot. Nygren didn’t miss, putting Hendricken up 46-41, forcing Coventry into a timeout and sending the capacity crowd into a frenzy.
“That kid’s a worker,” Gomes said of Nygren. “He’s a kid we kept in the program last year because we just love him. He’s an awesome kid. He’s a hard worker, he understands his role, he’s coming off of two or three kind of off-shooting nights, and then he comes in and makes two of the biggest shots maybe of the season.”
Out of the timeout, Hendricken didn’t miss a beat. Connor Flynn missed a three for Coventry and Duffie buried a long, off-balance jumper with the shot clock winding down to put the Hawks up 48-41. Consecutive Coventry turnovers gave way to four more Hendricken points – two on a layup by Duffie, two on free throws by Kyle Henseler – to cap off a 16-0 run in just over three minutes.
“We stay together,” Duffie said. “We just stick to it until the end. Every time we were right there, almost there. We just kept fighting and it was there, together.”
Coventry’s Ethan Lesnett hit a three-pointer to finally stop the bleeding, but Henseler made one of two free throws and Coventry missed a three-pointer when it got the ball back. With possession again, Duffie was fouled and hit one free throw, before missing the second, but Garfield Coustard grabbed the rebound and got the ball back to Duffie, who was fouled again and made both free throws. That made the score 56-44, putting the game out of reach.
“He’s so strong, he’s such a good athlete, he’s tough,” Gomes said of Duffie. “He doesn’t back down. He just keeps coming and keeps coming. He’s very good around the basket. I’m very proud of him.”
Mazzulla put an exclamation point on the victory two possessions later when he found himself completely free on a fast break and dunked the ball emphatically.
It was an emotional and exciting team win.
“This is as good as it gets,” Duffie said. “It was fun.”
Duffie ended the game with 23 points, while Mazzulla had 14, Henseler had 10 and Nygren had seven. Coventry was led by Lesnett’s 11. Sean Roles, the Oakers’ leading scorer at 18.4 points per game, was held to just eight points.
“He’s averaging 19-20 points a game, and then if you get sucked in on him they’ve got the perimeter shooters,” Gomes said of Roles. “We really had to dig in on defense, and we did.”
In the first half, Hendricken went down 14-6 before going on a 6-0 run with Duffie scoring four points and Chris O’Brien adding a bucket. Coventry upped the lead to 18-12 and 20-14 before the Hawks rallied and then closed with the final three points to go into the half trailing 22-20.
But the last five minutes of the game were what really made the difference.
“It was a great team effort,” Gomes said. “Guys that came in off the bench provided a lift. We could have easily folded when they went up by five or six points.”
Hendricken is in the midst of a brutal stretch of games, and it won’t get easier today when it hosts 9-3 North Kingstown at 7 p.m. The Skippers handed the Hawks one of their only two losses on the year, a 61-52 defeat on Jan. 13.
After that, Hendricken will travel to Cranston West on Friday at 7 p.m. and then take on 11-1 La Salle on Sunday on the road at 2 p.m. The Rams have the best record in Division I and lead the statewide standings.
“This team, I think we can go far,” Duffie said. “We’ve just got to stick together.”