Vets VJ squad caps perfect season with title
The Warwick Vets junior varsity basketball team had a chance to cap off a perfect season by winning the Division III championship on Tuesday at West Warwick High School.
The Hurricanes were well aware of the stakes.
"I think they felt that extra pressure to finish it off the right way," said head coach Nick Durand.
But in the face of that pressure - and a hard charging East Greenwich team - the 'Canes never wavered. Vets built a lead in the first half and held off a series of furious runs by the Avengers on their way to a 39-37 victory and the championship.
"It wasn't easy," Durand said. "But we stressed as a coaching staff to play defense all year long. We were able to come through when we needed to and stop a lot of runs."
And that was enough for a long-awaited championship. The title game had been postponed three times due to inclement weather, and the 'Canes hadn't played a game in more than two weeks.
But it was worth the wait.
"It's exciting," Durand said. "This is an undefeated season for us - 22-0."
The 'Canes trailed only once, at 5-3 early in the first half. Once they jumped in front 7-5, they never lost the lead.
But it was never easy.
The 'Canes went on a 9-0 run late in the first half thanks to a highlight reel three-point play by Justin Batista, a jumper from Ryan Wirth, a putback by Israel Thomas and a hook shot by Batista. That made it 20-9 with 2:26 left, but just when it looked like Vets would pull away, the Avengers came back with a 7-0 burst.
Batista hit a three in the final seconds of the first half to give Vets a 23-16 lead at the break.
In the second half, East Greenwich steadily chipped away at that lead. Vets got a layup and a three from Jeremy Batista but those were its only two baskets in the first 12 minutes of the half as the team struggled to solve East Greenwich's 1-3-1 zone. In the meantime, the Avengers cut the deficit to two with 6:57 left.
"They played a 1-3-1 that surprised us a little bit," Durand said. "We had to make an adjustment on offense."
It came at a good time. Coming out of a timeout around the four-minute mark, the 'Canes got a baseline jumper from Thomas to go back up by four. After an empty possession by East Greenwich, Kevin Martin scored on a baseline drive.
A minute later, Vets forced a turnover and Jeremy Batista buried a three-pointer from the wing to put Vets up 35-26.
One more time, though, the Avengers made a charge. Sam Alkins and Matthew Oh hit threes on back-to-back possessions to make it 35-32 with 1:28 left. Vets answered with a big bucket by Wirth, making it 37-32 with 1:01 left.
After Samuel McLimans made it a one-possession game with two free throws, Vets' Murilo Bellacosa got loose on an inbounds play and made a layup to push the lead back to five with 36 seconds left.
Still, East Greenwich wasn't done. With 27 seconds left, Oh hit another three - the team's third in a minute and a half - to make it 39-37.
"They kept coming at us," Durand said. "I was getting nervous."
But the 'Canes found a way. They played keep away for 13 seconds before East Greenwich finally fouled Jeremy Batista. He missed the front end of the one-and-one but the rebound went out of bounds to Vets.
The Avengers then stole the inbounds and headed up the court, but Vets stuck to its guns on defense in the final seconds and East Greenwich didn't get a shot off before the final buzzer.
"That was the defense we played all year," Durand said. "The guys came through."
The Batista brothers led the charge for the 'Canes with Jeremy scoring a team-high 11 and Justin tallying 10. Thomas scored eight.
It was enough for a championship.
"All the credit to the kids," Durand said. "They played great. I'm very proud of them."