Upstaged at its own game in the first half on Saturday night, Bishop Hendricken spent the next 16 minutes making a case that its defensive brand of basketball still measures up to the state’s gold standard.
The Hawks subjected visiting Tolman to the same sort of scornful treatment that so many other opponents have experienced throughout the majority of the last decade, pulling away for a 63-43 victory in the opening round of the 2012 Credit Union Boys Basketball State Tournament at Pepin Gymnasium.
Lee Messier overcame a slow start to finish with a game-high 20 points, Corey Palumbo piled up seven rebounds and five assists and Kazre Cummings held Tigers’ star Juan Velez to a 4-for-13 shooting night as No. 6 Hendricken booked its place in the Round of 16 opposite No. 11 Mount Pleasant Wednesday night in a 6 p.m. tip at CCRI-Warwick. The Hawks blew open what was a 27-26 game at the break by hounding the Tigers into a 35 percent effort from the field that included a 4-for-21 performance in the second half.
“I think we kind of wore them down,” Hendricken head coach Jamal Gomes said. “We made some shots, which put more pressure on their offense.”
Hendricken built its dynasty of seven straight titles from 2003-04 to 2009-10 on a foundation of stinginess, one that crumbled last season in a surprising 88-78 shootout loss against eventual state tournament runner-up Tiverton in the quarterfinals. The Hawks’ playoff opener this time around was a return to their roots, as they forced No. 27 Tolman, which was 9-9 in Division II during the regular season, out of its rhythm after a 7-for-15 start from the field.
“The difference was they came out a little bit tougher on defense in the second half,” Tolman coach Mike Kayata said. “They closed down a lot of the things that we wanted to do.”
Velez was the primary focus of Hendricken’s attention, a lightning-quick junior guard who came into Saturday averaging an even 20 points per game to rank inside the state’s top 10. The long-armed Cummings – who stands 6-foot-3 – used his eight-inch height advantage and considerable length to limit Velez to barely half that, as he finished with just 11, and endured a stretch where he missed six straight attempts from the floor.
“Wherever he was, we had to have somebody on him with a hand in his face,” Gomes said. “Even if he scored, he had to work for it.”
Hendricken’s offense exploded to life after some halftime adjustments, finally solving Tolman’s 3-2 zone look by nailing five straight shots and building a double-digit lead in the blink of an eye. Messier drilled three consecutive 3-pointers in the midst of a 15-2 run after the break that left his 2-for-8 showing in the first half squarely in the rearview mirror.
“He’s capable of doing that,” Gomes said. “If he hits one he can hit four, five, six in a row and really keep that momentum going.”
Messier’s third 3-pointer of the half came on exactly the sort of play Hendricken needed to execute to defeat the Tigers’ zone, as Manning found the soft spot at the left elbow and whipped a diagonal pass to Messier in the right corner for another open look.
“We tried to get the ball inside-out and step into some cleaner looks,” Gomes said. “Messier banged some shots and it definitely relieved a lot of pressure.”
Tolman’s defense threatened to steal the spotlight in the early going, as the Tigers had the Hawks looking tentative and confused at the offensive end while building a 17-11 cushion. Hendricken’s first 10 possessions resulted in seven missed field goals and two turnovers, its only points coming on a pair of Manning free throws. The Hawks closed the first half just 9-for-28 from the field and needed conventional three-point plays by Manning and Messier inside the final three minutes of the half to snap a 21-21 tie and finally take the lead for good.
“They hurt us in the beginning,” Gomes said. “I think we made the adjustments and knocked down some shots.”
Mt. Pleasant advanced courtesy of a 77-63 victory over Tiverton on Friday, and it is led by sophomore Kip Stewart, who racked up a game-high 28 points and is described by Gomes as the “best point guard in Rhode Island.” Mount Pleasant edged the Hawks, 47-42, in the lone meeting of the season between the two teams on Jan. 6, a loss that represented rock bottom during Hendricken’s 1-4 start to its Division I schedule. The Hawks have rebounded to win 13 of their last 14 games against in-state foes, and will be out to even the score in the rematch.
“Mount Pleasant is tough – I’m not kidding anybody,” Gomes said. “We’ve got to have a good game plan in to come out victorious. They are dangerous.”