Thursday, March 13, 2014

Basketball Survives Scare from East Greenwich, Advances in Open State Tournament

As with all playoff formats in any sport and at any level, there will always be disagreements about the best way to determine a champion. Obviously, there's always the standard debate about those teams with more inherent advantages than others - for example, for how many years have we heard the endless complaints about the 'big market' teams in baseball, such as the New York Yankees, having much greater financial resources than most other competitors, thus giving them a decided advantage in the pursuit of high-end free agents? Those arguments will never go away. The best that can be done is to develop a system that attempts to level the playing field as much as possible and to realize that nothing will ever be perfect. 

Count me among those who like the playoff system that we have in Rhode Island high school basketball. Every team in the state has a chance to win a championship, beginning with their regular-season and divisional tournaments. Following that, should a given team have had a successful enough season to qualify for the larger, Open State Tournament that results in a single, unified state champion, so much the better. The chance to even further validate the work that's been done by a group of players and a coaching staff is always a good thing. In a sense, it's not unlike the college conference tournaments that we all watch as March rolls around, that then leads to fans' 'doing their brackets' for the NCAA tournament. And, much like that greater spectacle, high school basketball teams in Rhode Island - particularly those in Divisions II and III - have the chance to play the role of Cinderella when they go up against the bigger dogs from Division I.

Last night, in a game broadcast live right here on The Network (with the usual broadcast team of Johnathan Feeny, Cam Brennan, and Stone Freeman doing their usual quality work on play-by-play and in-game analysis), we had the opportunity to watch - difficult as it may have been for Hendricken fans - the possible beginning of a Cinderella run. Of course, the East Greenwich Avengers wouldn't have seen themselves as a 'Cinderella' team, since they swept through their D-III schedule with a perfect 18-0 mark but were upset in their divisional tournament by eventual champion Juanita Sanchez in the semi-finals. There's a perfect example as to why the Open State Tournament is a great thing, because there's simply no way a team as good as East Greenwich should not have the opportunity to try to further validate their season. 

Fans can still watch the entire game, from beginning to end, at the top of the page in the first viewer.

The Avengers' taking it to the Hawks most of the night -  along with an added element to the potential storyline, in one of their key players, Nolan Cooney, making his first return to the Avenger lineup after battling cancer - was, so to speak, 'must-see TV'. Nolan scored a key basket during a furious push by EG during the second half to put the game away; his courage on so many fronts is, in itself, a story that transcends a mere basketball game. 

Out of the gate when the teams jumped it up, it looked as though the Hawks might run away and hide, taking a reasonably quick 8-0 lead. From that point on, however, it's a pretty safe argument to say that the Avengers outplayed our guys for the rest of the game. Ira Lough came off the bench about mid-way into the first half and provided five key points (including a big three-pointer), several huge rebounds, and aggressive play that helped to keep the Avengers at bay until intermission, at which point the Hawks held a slim 20-17 advantage. As the second half unfolded, it became clear that the Avengers had no intention of laying down for Hendricken - or any other team, for that matter, if they had the opportunity to advance - and were not going away. The Hawks were in a dogfight against a D-III team, but for all intents and purposes, the labels no longer applied. These were simply two basketball teams trying to survive. Of course, matters weren't being helped by the Hawks' inexplicable inability to score points; nonetheless, East Greenwich was controlling the game. 

The Avengers actually held a five-point lead, 30-25, with about five minutes to go. From there, however, the Hawks found themselves, to an extent, and took control of the last part of the game. Matt Duffie's two consecutive baskets and Chris O'Brien's huge, game-tying three-pointer pulled the Hawks back from the brink.

So, what's the takeaway from this game? It's unfortunate that the Avengers can't advance, because they really are a tough, talented team. 

The Hawks? They're gonna have to, as Coach Gomes is wont to say, "score the ball" if they hope to move on in the tournament.

The Hawks move on to the next round and will face Mount Hope, Sunday at Brown. The Huskies prevailed in their first round game in the 4-13 matchup when they upset West Warwick, 74-62. The original time for Sunday's game was slated for 2 pm, but because of our Open House in the afternoon, that time may change. 

Stay tuned for details.