Offensively, the Pilgrim boys’ basketball team was going to have to be as efficient as it had been all year in Wednesday’s playoff game against Middletown to have a chance at advancing in the Division III playoffs.
But long droughts and the play of the Islanders’ stars kept the Pats at an arm’s length. They never got closer than 10 over the final 14:30 of the second half, as the third-seeded Islanders ended No. 6 Pilgrim’s season with a 56-42 win in the D-III quarterfinals at Rogers High School.
Middletown’s Justin Bailey led all scorers with 21 points, including two fastbreak dunks, and Ryan Traeger added 14. The Islanders advanced to the D-III semifinals where they will take on Mt. Hope on Friday at Roger Williams University.
“I knew tonight that we were going to have to execute offensively just because Middletown plays such great defense,” said Pilgrim head coach Mike Batalon. “I knew if we were going to win the game it would be a tough, hard-fought game. I thought our guys played hard, but it’s a credit to Middletown how good they are.”
For Pilgrim, senior Ryan Morris led the way with 18 points, the last of which came on a free throw on an old-fashioned three-point play, giving him exactly 1,000 for his career. The game was stopped briefly, as Morris hugged his teammates and took in an ovation from the crowd.
“My last point ever in high school basketball was 1,000,” Morris said. “I’m not complaining.”
Letrelle Johnson added 10 for the Pats, while Chris Duchesneau chipped in with eight.
At the end of the day, Middletown was just too good. The game mirrored the team’s regular season match-up, in which Pilgrim hung with the Islanders in the first half but eventually got worn down as the game went on.
The Pats trailed only 24-18 at the end of the first half and held the ball for the final shot. Morris missed a layup inside, but Pilgrim got the rebound and re-set. However, Middletown’s Jacob Francis stole the ball at the top of the key, sprinted the other way and buried a floater as time expired to give Middletown a 26-18 lead at the break. That was a potential four-point swing, and it set the tone for the second half.
“Four-point swing,” Batalon said. “Not the way we wanted it going into the half. That being said, in the second half they made a run and we couldn’t match it.”
After halftime, Middletown opened up on a 15-6 run that gave it complete control. Bailey scored eight points, including his second dunk of the game, while Traeger added two and Francis buried a big three. Pilgrim tried to stay close, either pounding the ball to Morris or having Chris Duchesneau attack the basket, but nothing would go down. Just like that, the game seemed out of reach.
“Middletown was 15-3 for a reason,” Batalon said. “They play unbelievable defense, they’re very well-coached, they’re athletic. It’s tough to overcome a big deficit.”
Pilgrim mounted one final charge down 41-24, going on an 11-3 run to get back within 45-35 with 4:19 to play. Morris – inching closer to 1,000 – scored seven points, and Johnson scored three.
But Francis buried a jumper on Middletown’s next possession and Pilgrim immediately turned the ball over the next time it touched it. Bailey then scored and following a missed three by Johnson, Traeger scored inside. That made it 51-35, and the only drama left was whether or not Morris would get to 1,000.
He finally did with 31 seconds left.
Despite the loss, Morris’ milestone was a nice moment for a Pilgrim team that had a resurgence this season in large part due to Morris and his fellow seniors. Johnson and Brendan Rix are the other seniors.
Pilgrim won 11 games, its most since the 2004-05 season, and it made the playoffs for the first time since 2008-09.
Even after losing to Middletown, Batalon had no complaints. Rather, he was proud of his team’s accomplishments.
“I’m extremely proud of my guys and especially happy for the three seniors that they got a little taste of the playoffs,” he said. “I think we have a good group of underclassmen and we can keep the momentum going in the coming years.”