Panthers bounce Titans
When the game ended on Wednesday, Toll Gate boys' basketball coach Tom Rayko couldn't be angry or discouraged with any aspect of his team's performance.
The only disappointing part was the final score.
Playing in the quarterfinals of the Division III Tournament, the fifth-seeded Titans played hard in an emotional, back-and-forth contest, but came up just short, losing 58-55 to No. 4 Johnston.
It was a roller coaster ride for both teams, and Rayko knew his team had left everything out on the court.
"I'm absolutely proud of these kids," he said.
Toll Gate overcame a nine-point second-half deficit, took a two-point lead and then watched the Panthers claw their way back. Johnston hit three huge three-pointers in the final 2:17 of play to secure the win, including a dagger from Steve Simone with 49 seconds left and the shot clock down to one.
Simone's desperation three made the score 55-50, and left the Titans shaking their heads.
"That was the one that was a killer," Rayko said. "Time winding down. I think there was maybe a second on the clock. Ben Mann was in his face, and he drilled that. That's a big time shot. There's nothing you can say."
That made the difference in a match-up of two teams that were just about even across the board. Both Johnston and Toll Gate were 12-6 during the regular season, and the Panthers were only given a higher playoff seeding by virtue of their 70-62 win over the Titans in the regular season.
On Wednesday, they showed just how evenly matched they really are.
Toll Gate came out hitting on all cylinders, taking a 13-3 lead over the first 8:37 of play. The Titans got four points apiece from Kyle Toolin and Tyler Inkley, three from Ben Mann and two from John Coleman to grab the 10-point lead.
"We jumped out to that big lead, which was really nice," Rayko said.
But, after the teams began to trade baskets and the score reached 19-9, Johnston came right back with a dominating run of its own.
The Panthers extended out their 2-3 zone, forced turnovers and chiseled away until a three-pointer from Ryan McKeon with 56 seconds left in the half gave them their first lead at 30-29. They didn't stop there, as McKeon added a layup and Evan Hopson scored on a putback to give Johnston a 34-29 lead at the half.
All told, the Panthers finished the half on a 15-0 run.
"We called the early timeout and said, 'Calm down, we're not doing anything wrong,'" Johnston head coach Steve DeMeo said. "Some of our shots, we took some easy shots that didn't go in. Odds are they're going to fall sooner or later."
Coming out of the break, Johnston got a three from Mark Breton and stayed comfortably in front for the first seven minutes. A Simone layup at the nine-minute mark made it 46-37.
But just as Johnston overcame a deficit in the first half, the Titans fought their way back in the second.
Trailing by those nine points, Toll Gate tightened up its defense and began to use its size advantage inside. Coleman scored on consecutive possessions to make it 46-41, and Zach Mitchell buried a three to get within 46-44.
The Titans tied the score on a putback by Coleman, and then took their first lead of the half on a tough layup in traffic by John Murphy. With 3:46 to play, Toll Gate was suddenly up 48-46 thanks to an 11-0 run.
"We really dug in deep and we really played some defense, were able to hit some shots and utilized our big guys in the paint," Rayko said. "They did a great job, all of them."
Then it was Johnston's turn to get hot. Simone knocked down a three on its next possession to help the Panthers reclaim the lead at 49-48, but Toll Gate took it right back with a jumper by Tyler Inkley.
After the teams exchanged empty possessions, McKeon connected from long range to put Johnston up 52-50.
The Titans couldn't score on their next possession despite two chances, and that's when Simone hit the biggest shot of the game.
On the right wing, he faded away when he saw the shot clock ticking down and somehow knocked down the three.
"Steve hit a big three and Ryan McKeon hit a big three," DeMeo said. "Those were big shots."
Murphy hit two free throws for the Titans to make it 55-52 with 35 seconds left, and then they forced a turnover on a Johnston inbounds pass, giving them a chance to tie the game. But Murphy missed a three in the corner, and the Panthers got the rebound.
Toll Gate had no choice but to start fouling, and Breton hit two free throws to make it a five-point game again. After another Titans' miss, Hopson hit one of two free throws to make it 58-52.
Toolin hit a three at the other end to make it a three-point game, and McKeon followed that by missing the front end of a one-and-one, but Toll Gate couldn't get off a final desperation heave to tie the game before the clock hit zero.
That brought Toll Gate's season to a close.
Coleman led the team with 15 points, while Toolin had 14. Mann scored nine, while Inkley and Mitchell each had six. Murphy finished with four.
"I couldn't be more proud of these kids," Rayko said.
McKeon and Breton each had 15 points to lead Johnston, while Simone added 14.
Even with the abrupt ending in the team's first playoff game, it was a special season for the Titans, who won the Division III-Central regular season title for the second consecutive year and reached the 12-win plateau for just the third time in the last 12 seasons.
"We were obviously looking to go further," Rayko said. "We thought we had a shot. We had a great season, a great run. Coming into the season, it was tough early on. We had a great little start, we hit a rough patch, they got through that, they really came together and they really put together a run down the stretch."
They'll be trying to get back to that point with a newer cast of characters next season, as they lose Evan Stamps, Derryck Anderson, Mann, Mitchell, Toolin, Inkley, Murphy and Coleman all to graduation this year.
"They all did a great job," Rayko said. "My hat's off to every one of those seniors who is on this team."
Johnston went on to lose to top-seeded North Smithfield 58-40 in the semifinals on Friday. North Smithfield won the D-III title with a 66-55 victory over East Greenwich on Sunday.
Neither Toll Gate or Johnston qualified for the 16-team all-division state tournament, set to begin later this week.