For the first time since 2002, cross-town rivals Pilgrim and Warwick Vets will both be playing in the boys’ basketball postseason at the same time.
Their match-up in Monday’s season finale fit right in.
In front of a raucous crowd, the Hurricanes celebrated Senior Night and came out with as much energy as they’ve displayed all season but went ice cold in the second half. Pilgrim – which lost to Vets by four in January – took full advantage, turning a four-point halftime deficit into a slim lead they never lost. Vets made a furious charge in the last two minutes but Ryan Morris hit a key bucket inside and Brandon Lawton made three clutch free throws in the final 11 seconds to clinch a thrilling 47-44 victory for Pilgrim.
“This atmosphere is what high school basketball is all about,” said Pilgrim head coach Mike Batalon. “We fed off the crowd and we were able to get back in the game. For the seeding and for a little pride, we wanted this one. City rival, we lost to them early in the season and we wanted to make up for that.”
The win allowed Pilgrim to move one spot ahead of Vets in the Division III standings. The Pats finished at 11-7, while Vets closed at 10-8. Pilgrim will likely get the No. 6 seed in the 10-team Division III playoffs, which comes with a bye to the quarterfinals. Vets will be either the seventh or eighth seed and will play a preliminary-round game.
“We’re fine,” said head coach Chris LeBlanc. “Like I told the guys it was for playoff seeding, but it was just an end-of-season game. We’re in the playoffs, they’re in the playoffs. We’ll see what happens.”
Vets opened Tuesday’s game with a 7-0 run and forced 10 first-half turnovers. Pilgrim’s 47 points matched the second-lowest total the ’Canes have allowed this season. Vets turned the ball over just seven times, compared to 20 for the Pats.
But all of that amounted to little on the scoreboard. The ’Canes took 15 more shots than Pilgrim but made two fewer. They started the second half 1-of-12 and didn’t get much better, finishing 6-of-33 after the break. They shot 25 percent for the game.
“We held them to 47 points defensively,” LeBlanc said. “Morris played well and there’s not much you can do about that. I thought we played well. We just couldn’t put the ball in the basket.”
The ’Canes certainly had their chances. After key buckets by Letrelle Johnson and Morris put Pilgrim up six with 3:11 left, Scott Camara hit two free throws and Will Remak buried a three-pointer. That got Vets within a point at 42-41 with 1:22 left and set up a wild finish.
On Pilgrim’s next trip, Chris Duchesneau missed a runner but Johnson grabbed an offensive rebound. After Vets knocked the ball out of bounds, Pilgrim got the ball to Morris, who missed a tough shot but followed it up with a putback. That put Pilgrim up 44-41.
Remak, who scored a game-high 20 points, got two looks at game-tying threes on Vets’ next possession but misfired on both.
Pilgrim took over with 20 seconds left, and to that point Vets had only been whistled for three fouls. As they hacked away to get Pilgrim into the bonus, they nearly got the ball back on a Justin Batista steal, but the ball went out of bounds to Pilgrim.
Finally, the ’Canes sent Lawton to the line with 11 seconds left. For a sophomore backup point guard, that’s typically not a comfortable spot, especially since the Pats were only in the one-and-one.
Lawton hit nothing but net on the first free throw and then calmly made the second to put the Pats up five.
“One and one is kind of scary, but if you make the first one, the second one’s easier,” Lawton said. “After I made the first one and we were up four, there was a lot less pressure. I just knew I had to make the first one.”
The free throws proved to be crucial when Josh Muto buried a three for Vets with seven seconds left, cutting the lead to two. Lawton went to the line again with five seconds to go and again hit the first one.
“We had a big win earlier in the year against Moses Brown where he did the same thing,” Batalon said. “He’s got ice water in his veins and he did a great job tonight.”
Lawton missed his second shot this time, giving Vets hope, but Camara missed a double-clutch three from the corner as time expired.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Batalon said. “We were down at halftime and we picked up our intensity in the second half. We really played well. Vets got off to a great start. There’s a lot of emotion with Senior Night. We just tried to take it one possession at a time – get a good stop on defense and a good shot on offense.”
Morris led the Pats with 19 points and Johnson added 12. Duchesneau and Lawton had seven apiece. In addition to Remak’s 20, Muto had 12 for Vets and Israel Thomas had six.
The finale marked the end of resurgent regular seasons for both teams. Vets out-did its win total from the previous two years combined with the 10 victories. Pilgrim had its best season since 2005 and will be in the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
That’s especially satisfying for seniors Morris, Johnson and Brendan Rix, who suffered through a two-win campaign just two years ago.
“I’m really proud of our seniors,” Batalon said. “We’ve gone from two wins, to five wins to 11 wins this year. Down the stretch, the seniors have really played exceptional. I’m really proud of the way they stepped up at the end of the game.”
The playoffs are set to begin this weekend with preliminary-round games. The quarterfinals are scheduled for next week. Match-ups, locations and times were still to be determined as of Wednesday.
Vets will get Scituate, Johnston or North Smithfield in the prelims, with the No. 1 or No. 2 seed waiting in the quarterfinals. Pilgrim will have a quarterfinal tilt with either Mt. Hope or Middletown, who both finished 15-3. The Pats lost to each in the regular season.
“We played both teams tough for about 20 minutes,” Batalon said. “If we can put together a full game, I think we’ll be able to give them a game.”