For the second year in a row, the Toll Gate boys’ basketball team will be hanging a banner.
After beating Warwick Vets last Tuesday, the Titans knocked off Juanita Sanchez – their chief challenger for the division title – on Wednesday and then finished off their late-season surge with a 58-43 victory over Pilgrim on Thursday afternoon. With those three wins in three days, the Titans improved to 12-6 and clinched the Division III-Central regular season championship.
“It’s awesome,” senior Tyler Inkley said after the win over Pilgrim. “We had a rough patch after our first few games, and it’s been tough the last couple of weeks, but I think we really came through the adversity. We showed everybody we can play.”
The Titans will now march into the Division III playoffs, where they’ll be the fifth seed. They’ll take on No. 4 Johnston in the quarterfinals on Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Cumberland High School.
Toll Gate will be eager to keep the ride going, especially considering where the team has been this year. At the start of the season, the Titans were replacing nearly every contributor from last year’s 15-3 team. After getting off to a good start, they lost five of seven games midway through the season. Lately, they haven’t been able to use their gym, and the three games in three days to close out the season came after a four-day snow storm layoff.
In the end, none of it mattered.
The Titans won their last five games.
“At the start of the season, I would have never guessed that we’d be putting up a banner,” head coach Tom Rayko said. “We started out well but we had our quirks and I wasn’t sure what to expect. But it’s just been a fantastic season.”
And it was a fantastic finish.
After the win over Warwick Vets, the Titans traveled to Juanita Sanchez for a game that had been circled on their calendar for a while. Both teams came in with 10-6 records, and the Cavaliers had beaten the Titans by seven in December.
This time, Toll Gate seized its opportunity, rallying from a nine-point second-half deficit and holding off the Cavaliers for a 53-51 victory.
“It was a great performance,” Rayko said. “That was the game. They knew coming in that they had to have that one.”
As exciting as the win was, the Titans still had to take care of business against Pilgrim on Thursday, and it wasn’t going to be easy. The Pats, who were out of the playoff picture at 5-12, were eager to finish strong.
And they played like it.
On the strength of 13 first-half points by Ryan Morris, the Pats went to the locker room leading by three.
“I think we passed through their press very well,” said Pilgrim head coach Mike Batalon. “We found the open man. We played smart and we played loose.”
At halftime, the Titans regrouped.
“I thought everybody was playing hard, but it wasn’t the same intensity we had the last two nights,” Rayko said. “We told them at halftime, ‘They’re not giving it to you. You need to put your foot on the gas pedal and drive right through this team right now. Try to put them away early and get the job done.’”
That’s just what they did.
Kyle Toolin hit a pull-up jumper just 10 seconds into the half and drove for a floater with 15:09 left, giving Toll Gate a 29-28 lead. Ben Mann followed with a layup off a pass from Inkley and John Coleman scored in the post. Just like that, the Titans had put together an 8-0 run and led 33-28.
Morris stemmed the tide with two buckets, but Toll Gate kept coming. Toolin buried a three with 12:48 left before converting an old-fashioned three-point play to make it 39-32 with 9:58 left.
That was the start of a 9-0 run, with John Murphy getting a steal and layup, Inkley scoring in the post and Murphy hitting a short jumper. With 7:40 left, Toll Gate led 45-32.
Pilgrim, which had committed only two turnovers in the first half, had six in the first seven minutes of the second half and made just one of its first 10 shots.
“We picked up a lot of energy and momentum and we really locked down on defense,” Rayko said.
Seth Lawson got the Pats back within 10 when he hit a three with 7:25 left, but the Titans responded with four quick points as Coleman hit two free throws and Mann made a putback.
Luis Pimental hit a three with 4:02 left to get the Pats within 11, but they came up empty on their next two possessions before Coleman scored inside to push it back to 13. Lawson made a three to once again make it a 10-point game with 2:15 left, but Toolin answered with a three from the wing at the 1:55 mark, and the Pats couldn’t make another charge.
“I think Toll Gate really picked up the defensive intensity in the second half,” Batalon said. “I give them a lot of credit, and we struggled in the half-court offense.”
As the final seconds ticked away, the Titans celebrated.
“Phenomenal way to finish out the season,” Rayko said.
Inkley had 16 to lead the Titans and Toolin added 15. Coleman was also in double figures with 10.
Morris was a bright spot for the Pats in defeat, as he has been all season. The junior big man scored 19.
“Ryan is one of the best low-post scorers in the division,” Batalon said. “He’s a legitimate threat. Teams game-plan against him and he’s still able to have good games. He’s really come a long way offensively this season.”
Lawson added 11 for the Pats, who finished with a 5-13 record.
“Obviously we’d like to be in the playoffs,” Batalon said. “We had a little bit of a lull in the middle of the year, but we regrouped and played hard until the end.”
The Titans will now head into the postseason for the third straight year. Johnston, their first-round opponent, is also 12-6. The Panthers beat the Titans 70-62 in January, but lost two straight to end the season and are playing without starting point guard Tyreek McPhail.
“I’ve always been taking it one game at a time, but I think we can beat any team as long as we come to play like we’ve been playing the last couple of games,” Rayko said.