Pilgrim knew it had a size advantage in Tuesday’s boys’ basketball game with Johnston.
And the Patriots sure used it.
Ryan Morris had 25 points and 14 rebounds, Letrelle Johnson added 11 rebounds and Pilgrim scored 36 of their 60 points in the paint en route to a surprisingly easy 60-34 win over the perennially contending Panthers.
The victory continued a strong stretch for the Pats, who won for the fourth time in five games and jumped over .500 at 4-3. They were set to take on Toll Gate Wednesday, with results unavailable at press time.
“I thought our defense was good tonight and we’ve been improving little by little every game,” said Pilgrim head coach Mike Batalon. “All our guys were hitting the glass and working hard on defense. I think we’re coming together. The league is really wide open and we’re right in the thick of things.”
The win moved Pilgrim into a tie with Warwick Vets for first place in Division III-Central. Since a loss to Vets on Jan. 7, the Pats have been playing their best basketball of the season. Unbeaten Middletown handed the Pats their only loss since that Vets game.
“We’re starting to click,” said Morris, a senior center. “Our guards are hitting their shots, we’re not turning the ball over. We’re definitely at the turning point in the season. We want to keep it rolling this week.”
The Pats certainly kept it rolling against Johnston. Morris and Johnson scored the team’s first 10 points, with all 10 coming in the paint and six coming on second chances.
It was a sign of things to come. The Patriots dominated the glass with 20 offensive rebounds. Morris, Johnson, Brendan Rix and Elijah Dressel did the heavy lifting.
“We really tried to pound it inside and pound the glass tonight and we did a really good job,” Batalon said.
Johnston, which dropped to 3-4, had no answer.
“They just absolutely killed us on the boards,” said Johnston head coach Steve DeMeo. “We talked in every timeout about boxing out and we just did absolutely nothing. But credit to them too. Morris was a beast tonight. We were allowing him to get second and third shots and [Johnson] kept sneaking in there and getting rebounds too. You can’t let that happen.”
The Pats used a 7-0 run midway through the first half to take control. Chris Duchesneau scored on a pair of drives to the hoop and Blake Doelling buried a three. After a brief drought, Morris converted a three-point play and Duchesneau hit a free throw to make it 21-14.
Then, leading by six at the one-minute mark, the Pats surged into the break. Dressel scored on a follow with 57 seconds left and Morris did the same 30 seconds later. After a Johnston bucket, Doelling hit a three in the final seconds to put Pilgrim up 28-17 at halftime.
It was more of the same in the second half, even when Johnston made a brief push. After Morris extended the lead to 13, the Panthers got a three-pointer from Zach Coro, a bucket inside from Eddie Gallucci and a short jumper from Larry Dureault for a quick 7-0 run that trimmed the deficit to six.
But Pilgrim had an answer.
Duchesneau went strong to the hoop for two on Pilgrim’s next trip and Morris made one of two free throws after getting fouled the next time down. Mark Breton scored in the post for Johnston to get it back to seven, but the Pats dominated the next five minutes. Two baskets in the post from Morris and two free throws from Duchesneau started a 15-2 run that essentially put the game away. Morris had 11 points in that stretch, including a three-point play that sent the home crowd into a frenzy.
“Ryan’s obviously a focal point for us every game,” Batalon said. “He’s doing a great job. He’s talking on defense and he’s very aggressive on offense. He’s been our leader all year.”
Morris had scored 14 points in a win over Scituate last week, but felt he’d been limited inside. He wasn’t going to let it happen again.
“Last game, I kind of got pushed around at Scituate,” Morris said. “Tonight, I just thought my team needed me to dominate inside and get rebounds. I just tried to come out strong.”
After the 15-2 run, Doelling buried another three to push the lead to 21. Johnston never got closer than 20 the rest of the way. Pilgrim out-scored the Panthers 32-17 after halftime.
“We want to play 32 minutes,” Batalon said. “Some days, we’ve only played well in stretches. Tonight, I feel like we really put it together for the whole game.”
Morris’s 25 points led the way for the Pats. Duchesneau and Doelling added nine each, while Johnson and Dressel scored six apiece. Ryan McKeon led Johnston with seven.
Pilgrim is part of a deep middle of the pack in D-III. Middletown and East Greenwich are unbeaten, Mt. Hope has one loss and Moses Brown has two. After that, eight teams are within one game of each other in the loss column.
The Pats will host winless Ponaganset on Friday at 6:30 p.m., before visiting undefeated East Greenwich on Monday at 7 p.m.
“We just want to keep improving day by day,” Batalon said. “We’ve got a lot of tough games coming up. Hopefully we can get ourselves into the playoff picture.”