In the first four minutes of Sunday’s basketball game, Bishop Hendricken didn’t miss a shot.
For the next 28 minutes, it was never quite that easy.
First-place La Salle took control with an 11-0 first-half run and never trailed again en route to a 76-66 victory in front of a standing room only crowd at the McLaughlin Athletic Center.
The Rams scored more points than anyone has all season against Hendricken and committed just seven turnovers. The Hawks, battling foul trouble and an injury to point guard Kyle Henseler, could never get a comeback going, with 16 second-half turnovers and poor free-throw shooting hurting the cause. They got within four early in the second half, but never came closer.
“It’s an emotional game,” said La Salle head coach Eric Simonelli. “Two good teams and they took it to us early. You can’t get rattled with a little run early on. That’s part of basketball. We knew if we were able to play our game, we were going to be in good shape.”
La Salle improved to 13-1 with the victory and remained atop the statewide standings. Hendricken dropped to 11-4 and is tied for fourth with Coventry and North Kingstown.
Hendricken’s Matt Duffie led all scorers with 18 points and E.J. Nygren chipped in 16. Adrian LaFleur paced four Rams in double figures with 16. Scott Deffley tallied 15, Keon Wilson scored 14 and Lawrence Sabir, Jr. scored 10.
“I’m proud of our guys,” said Hendricken head coach Jamal Gomes. “We played hard. We’re going to learn from this and hopefully we’ll get a chance to see them again in the playoffs. We have some stuff we need to clean up.”
Early on, there was nothing to clean up. The Hawks made their first five shots from the field, including three-pointers from Duffie and Justin Mazzulla. They led 12-6 with 12:31 left and upped it to 17-9 two minutes later.
But the Rams – the highest-scoring team in Division I – were not easily held down.
With the Hawks leading 21-16, LaFleur hit a pull-up jumper with 8:25 left in the first half that sparked an 11-0 burst. Wilson scored on a putback, Deffley converted a three-point play off a turnover, Sabir scored on the break after a steal and LaFleur hit another jumper to cap the surge.
“We just played our game,” Simonelli said. “We’ve got some speed, some athleticism and we try to utilize it. Today was just about going out and executing.”
In addition to the sudden deficit, the Hawks also lost Henseler during the run. He banged his head while trying to chase down Sabir on the fast break and didn’t return to the game.
Hendricken managed to stay within striking distance for the rest of the half, with Nygren scoring six of the team’s final nine points on drives to the bucket.
But the 43-35 halftime score was not where the Hawks wanted to be. Coming into the game, they had allowed 43 points or fewer in entire games seven times this season.
“The first half, our defense was not where it needed to be,” Gomes said. “They scored 43 points, and that’s sometimes what we’re giving up in a whole game. La Salle’s got a lot of firepower. They’re a good team.”
The Rams cooled off early in the second half, making just two of their first 10 shots, but in what would become a trend, the Hawks could barely make any headway. They committed four turnovers in the first four minutes of the second half, and even when Duffie buried a three to cut the lead to four, the Rams quickly pushed it back to seven.
Duffie tried to bring the Hawks back again later in the half, converting driving layups on consecutive possessions to make it a five-point game with 7:33 left. But a turnover led to a pair of free throws for Wilson that got it to seven again.
“We come out in the second half and we’re battling,” Gomes said. “Our defensive intensity picked up, we prevented them from scoring, but we couldn’t put the ball in on the other side. We couldn’t get shots to the rim because we were turning the ball over.”
The Hawks also didn’t help themselves at the free-throw line, either. With fouls mounting on both sides, they took 36 free throws and made only 20.
Soon enough, the Rams were pulling away. With the lead at eight with 3:26 left, Sabir buried a three and LaFleur hit two free throws and a runner to give the Rams their largest lead of the night at 68-53.
Nygren hit threes on consecutive possessions to get the Hawks within nine at 1:46, but it was too little, too late. The Rams made six of 12 free throws in the final 1:35.
“We weren’t able to chip into that lead when we needed to,” Gomes said. “Eventually they’re going to make a shot and start building on that lead.”
Hendricken’s previous season high in points allowed was 67 in a non-league loss to Ledyard, Conn. In league play, they hadn’t allowed more than 61.
The Rams shot 45 percent from the field and were 22-of-33 at the line. They committed just the seven turnovers.
“Having more possessions is obviously important,” Simonelli said. “Being smart out there can be the difference between winning and losing. If you’re giving a team like Hendricken extra opportunities, it’s going to be a long night.”
The Hawks will try to bounce back with another chance at a marquee win tonight. They’ll visit Coventry – whom they beat on Feb. 9 – for a 7 p.m. tip.
“We can’t let this stew,” Gomes said. “We’ve got to go to Coventry on Tuesday, which is tough.”