Earlier this month, the Toll Gate boys' basketball team beat East Greenwich by 15 points in the James Donaldson Tip-Off Tournament. Based on that, the Titans weren't thrilled that they had to go overtime in Tuesday's league game against the Avengers.
But once they were in overtime, the Titans certainly made the best of it.
After falling behind by a point early in the extra session, the Titans finally found their groove and scored nine consecutive points on their way to a 65-57 victory.
The Titans are now 2-0 in league play, and they had the strong overtime period to thank – even if they didn't expect to be there.
"Overtime, I told them to put the pressure on, just like it should have been the whole game," said head coach Tom Rayko. "I told them, 'Start now, because this is where we are. Put them away.'"
Rayko thought the Titans could have done that earlier if they had been able to turn their high-pressure defense into offense. They forced 20 turnovers on the night and often had the Avengers in a frenzy. That's the blueprint they had followed in the earlier win over East Greenwich, a solid non-league performance against Division I power Bishop Hendricken and a league victory over Exeter/West Greenwich.
Unlike those games, though, the Titans couldn't capitalize on their defensive efforts. They committed 21 turnovers of their own and missed several chances to pull away in the first half. At one point, they forced turnovers on three straight possessions only to give the ball right back every time.
"I really felt we totally controlled the first half," Rayko said. "If we ever could have held onto the basketball, we would have been fine. We made a lot of mistakes, and from there, we just kept sinking. We were just not in our game. "
That put the Titans into a tough spot, and they needed everything they had to get out. They trailed by a point with 35 seconds left in the game, but when East Greenwich's Kyle Palmer missed the front end of a one-and-one, they had life. Jevonta Gonsalves promptly buried a three-pointer to put the Titans ahead.
With just five seconds left, though, East Greenwich's Brandon Eckles got the ball in the lane and hit a turnaround jumper to tie the score. Gonsalves missed a long three at the buzzer, sending the game into overtime.
Soon enough the Titans were in control. They went up 56-55 on a free throw by Nick Carr before the Avengers took the lead on a baseline jumper by Ryan Gavin.
After that, it was all Toll Gate – literally.
Eckles missed two free throws with 2:16 left, and Ethan Dujon made a tough driving lay-up on Toll Gate's next possession. Then, on East Greenwich's next trip, Dujon blocked what looked like an easy layup for Gavin. At the other end, Tyler Inkley made a perfect pass to Nick Carr down low, and Carr converted to put the Titans up by three.
After an East Greenwich miss, Gonsalves pushed the ball ahead to Dujon, who hit a running layup for the five-point lead. Austin Abramson then made a pair of free-throws and Gonsalves made another to put the game on ice.
"I was really happy that the kids didn't give up, even when things weren't going well," Rayko said.
In those terms, the early part of the second half was the make-or-break moment for the Titans. Colin Stamps hit a three on the Titans' first possession of the half to put them up by eight, but the Titans then committed turnovers on four of their next five possessions. In the meantime, the Avengers made five of their first six field-goal attempts and put together a 12-0 run.
But the Titans eventually stopped the bleeding and tied the game on a three by Gonsalves with 7:33 left. It was back-and-forth the rest of the way before the Titans came up big down the stretch.
"It was great to watch all of them come back from the adversity of kind of not being where they should have been tonight," Rayko said.
Dujon was a prime example. He's been one of the team's leading scorers but had just four points in regulation. But in overtime, his two buckets and his block sparked Toll Gate's surge.
"Ethan was a little under the weather and had a bad game, but he came up huge in the last two minutes," Rayko said. "A driving bucket, another basket and a block underneath – that kind of sealed the deal. For him to overcome that adversity after having a bad game, that was great to see."
Gonsalves led the Titans with 24 points. He hit six three-pointers. Carr added 14 points.
Those efforts reflect the balance Toll Gate hopes can be a key to success the rest of the way.
"Tonight, it was Jevonta's night," Rayko said. "A couple nights ago, it was Ethan. One game, it was Nick. The last time we played EG, Kevin Sanda had a big game. We have a lot of people who can put the ball in the basket this year. I'd like to see everybody in double digits, but if we ride a guy with a hot hand, that works too. We'll go from there."
Toll Gate will be back in action Friday for a league game at Middletown. The team will then host the Warwick Beacon Holiday Classic next Tuesday and Wednesday. Toll Gate opens the tourney against Pilgrim on Tuesday at 7 p.m.