The Toll Gate boys’ basketball team played Prout earlier this month, and the unbeaten Crusaders handed the Titans their first divisional loss of the season.
Facing another undefeated team on Friday, Toll Gate didn’t waste its second chance to make a statement.
Using balanced scoring and a suffocating 2-1-2 defense, the Titans dominated Johnston 60-38 in front of a packed gym to improve to 7-1 and maintain its lead in Division III-Central. Johnston fell to 6-1 in D-III-North.
“I don’t think you can play a perfect game, but it was pretty close,” Toll Gate head coach Tom Rayko said.
Ethan Dujon led all scorers with 18 points for Toll Gate, while Jevonta Gonsalves added 15 and Austin Abramson had 13.
Johnston, meanwhile, was playing without its top scorer, senior Ryan Anderson. Anderson hurt his knee earlier in the week, and was awaiting the results of an MRI to determine the severity of the injury.
That left the Panthers without their best outside threat. With him out of the lineup, Toll Gate concentrated on taking away Johnston’s inside presence, junior Evan Hopson.
Though Hopson ended up with a team-high 14 points, he was held scoreless in the first half and made just two field goals on the night.
“Especially in the first half we did a real good job of keeping the ball out of his hands,” Rayko said. “When he did get it, we swarmed him. Second half, he got it a little bit here and there.”
The result of that defense was Johnston firing up three-pointers that were routinely off the mark. The Panthers made just four for the game.
Toll Gate, on the other hand, made it a point to get out in transition, and it took a commanding lead early on.
A free throw from Johnston’s Paul Burrows gave the Panthers a 6-4 lead three minutes in, before the Titans really got going.
Four points apiece from Gonsalves, Dujon and Nick Carr, combined with a three-pointer from Austin Abramson sent Toll Gate on a 15-0 run, giving it a 19-6 lead.
The lead ballooned to 29-13 before Johnston cut it to 30-17 at the half.
“Their defense in the first half, their 2-1-2, was as good as we’ve seen all year,” Johnston head coach Steve DeMeo said. “They took us out of everything that we can do. We tried everything. We got a little impatient because their defense was so good.”
The Panthers came out in the second half with newfound intensity, and Hopson scored his first three points of the game on free throws to make it a 10-point game.
But Toll Gate always kept Johnston at just enough of an arm’s length to never really be threatened.
The Titans scored the next three points, and upped their lead back to 16 at 40-24 on a Gonsalves fast-break layup.
“We were trying to match their intensity,” Gonsalves said. “We know they like to run a lot, and we were trying to keep our composure.”
Johnston had one more run in it, however.
It got a layup from Hopson, then one Hopson free throw on the next possession to make it a 13-point game. After Abramson made two free throws to make it 42-27, Johnston’s Chris Pistacchio buried a three, followed by a Toll Gate miss and two more Hopson free throws.
Another Titans miss on their next possession and two more Hopson free throws made it 42-34, bringing the deficit to single digits for the first time since Toll Gate held a 14-6 lead.
“I thought we played as hard as possible in the second half,” DeMeo said. “If we played with that intensity in the first half – I’m not saying we would have won the game – but I think the score would have been more respectable on our part.”
With big-man Nick Carr on the bench for most of the second half in foul trouble, Toll Gate needed strong performances from Dujon, Gonsalves and Abramson to close the game out.
Those three – combined with senior Mike Reyes’ first appearance of the season off the bench – helped the Titans do just that.
Gonsalves made a free throw to make it a nine-point game, and Reyes converted a putback on Toll Gate’s next possession to make it 45-34. Hopson answered with two more free throws – he had 12 attempts in the second half – but Dujon added two free throws of his own to increase the lead.
A Johnston turnover led to Abramson getting fouled in transition, and two more made free throws, and another turnover led to a Reyes layup and a 51-35 lead with just over three minutes to play.
“I told Austin, Jevonta and Ethan, ‘You guys have to step up and control this game as much as you can right now,’” Rayko said. “And they did. They did a wonderful job.”
From there, Toll Gate cruised to the finish line.
“We were looking forward to this game, a lot,” Gonsalves said. “We practiced real hard, and that was it. We came out and executed.”
Next up for the Titans is a game today at Mount St. Charles at 7 p.m. They’ll play again on Wednesday at home against 5-2 North Smithfield, also at 7 p.m.