For the first time since 2007, the CCRI men’s basketball team is headed back to the NJCAA Division II National Tournament.
And as the Knights punched their ticket Saturday afternoon, they left no doubt that they belonged.
Hosting Lackawanna College of Pennsylvania in the Northeast District championship game, the Knights saw a 13-point first-half lead dwindle to four at the break but came out of the locker room and hit the gas. They started the second half on a 19-6 run and never looked back, out-scoring the Falcons 49-19 after halftime and storming to a 97-63 victory.
The win improved the team’s program-best record to 28-4 and earned CCRI its 12th trip to nationals.
“It’s great,” said CCRI head coach Rick Harris, who took the Knights to nationals in 2007. “We went my first year, and I was thinking, ‘Oh this is going to be easy.’ It’s not easy getting there. CCRI, with the tradition we have and what (former coach) Vin Cullen built, everyone gives us their best shot. We have a target on our back each and every game. For us to deal with that and go 28-4 with people giving us their best effort, it’s a credit to these guys and how they’ve handled themselves.”
The Knights, who have been ranked as high as third in national polls, went 26-4 in the regular season and finished with eight straight wins. They then won the Region XXI championship over Orange County CC, putting themselves one win away from nationals.
Standing in the way was Lackawanna, which went 13-15 in the regular season but won its last three games. And the Falcons came out firing Saturday, with Javon White hitting back-to-back threes to make it 6-0 in the early going.
The Knights regrouped quickly and put together a 16-2 run midway through the first half, but Lackawanna didn’t go away. A barrage of 3-pointers in the final four minutes sparked a 10-0 run, and the Knights led just 48-44 at halftime.
The second half was a completely different story.
CCRI switched to a 1-3-1 zone defense and threw the Falcons for a loop, allowing just five points in the first 5:30 of the second half.
And in the meantime, the Knights heated up.
After a free throw by the Falcons started the scoring, Roger Livramento scored inside for the Knights. A turnover led to a three by Desmond Williams, and he buried another on CCRI’s next trip. A Falcons bucket momentarily stopped the bleeding, but Livramento hit a free throw and Williams drained a deep three with a defender on him to make it 60-47.
Lackawanna cut the lead to 11 on its next trip but would never get closer. Chris Canino stepped out for a three on CCRI’s next possession, and Jeff Schmeltz followed with a bucket inside. A runner by Bryan Yarce capped off the 19-6 surge.
“We usually start the second half in a 1-3-1 zone and it’s been working the whole year,” Yarce said. “Defense started it off and that’s how we got the big lead.”
The 1-3-1 has been a spark all season, and clearly, it worked again.
“We used that 1-3-1 defense,” Harris said. “I used to use that in high school at Cranston East and it won us some big games. You don’t see it much in college ball. No one has had an answer for it. We stayed with it longer than we normally stay with it. Multiple games this year, we’ve been up three or four points, we go to 1-3-1 and we put together a big run to start the second half.”
As the second half went on Saturday, Lackawanna never really solved the defense. And at the other end, the Knights continued to fire on all cylinders.
Leading by 14 with 10:01 left, the Knights blitzed the Falcons with a 12-0 run that took just over three minutes. It included another Williams three, two buckets inside by Isaac Medeiros and a tough basket by Trevor Mabry.
When it was over the Knights led 85-59 and could put it on cruise control. For good measure, they finished the game on a 10-0 run, with the exclamation point coming on a behind-the-back pass by Livramento that led to a fast-break dunk by Brenden Barboza.
Williams led the Knights with a game-high 29 points and he hit seven of nine 3-point attempts. Livramento had a double-double with 13 points and 19 rebounds, Mabry tallied 18 points, Medeiros scored 12 and Yarce dished out 12 assists without committing a turnover.
“We’re just so hard to deal with because we have so many weapons – Yarce, Williams, the inside guys Mabry, Livramento, Isaac Medeiros off the bench,” Harris said. “My wife asked me last week if I was nervous going into the region games. I said, ‘No, I’ve got a lot of talent in my back pocket.’ When you’ve got a team like this that works hard in practice and has the ability they have, it makes you pretty confident. As long as you follow your gameplan and the kids stay level-headed, you’ve got a good chance.”
That’s been a pretty good formula for the Knights. They’ve battled some adversity and lost a handful of players for various reasons as the season has gone on, but in the last month or so, everything has clicked.
“I’ll be honest,” Harris said. “We’ve lost a few kids, one or two to grades, another kid left us. After that last defection about a month ago, we came together tremendously. We jelled after that happened. This is the group that has bought into our total team style.”
Now the Knights get to see how far that style can take them. The national tournament will be held at Danville Area Community College in Danville, Ill., beginning on Tuesday, March 20. The Knights don’t yet know who they’ll be matched up with, but they’re excited.
“It’s like getting to the big dance for the Division I schools,” Harris said. “Getting to nationals is very challenging. What a treasure for the kids and the program. You get the cream of the crop. There are some high-powered teams there every year. It’s an exciting event.”
And the Knights are hoping to make some noise.
“We worked hard all year,” Yarce said. “Beginning of the season, coach Harris set goals for us. The first one was win the region, win the region tournament and then get to districts. It feels good to accomplish those goals and we still have one more – win it all.”