Cougars strike again, claw Panthers

Cougars strike again, claw Panthers

Hoop team silences slow start with back-to-back wins

NORTH PROVIDENCE – After ending 2017 with a thud, the North Providence High boys’ basketball team has certainly made the most out of the New Year.

Five nights after picking up their first victory of the season, the Cougars landed in the win column again by taking a 72-67 thriller with Johnston High that saw the Panthers wipe out a 38-27 halftime deficit, but the Cougars pull away from their visitors in the final 3½ minutes.

Senior point guard Matt Rohelia, pictured, scored 19 points and added 10 assists and four steals, and his backcourt partner, senior sharpshooter Paul Rizzo Jr., bagged five three-pointers and ended up with 17 points – all coming in the final 17½ minutes of the game – to lead the Cougars, who are now 2-3 in the division and 2-5 overall after finishing December with an 0-5 mark that included a pair of losses in the Harry Mutter Holiday Tournament at East Providence High.

It was after their final game in that tourney, a 77-42 loss in the consolation game to Toll Gate, that head coach Paul Rizzo encouraged his players to not only keep their heads up and stick together, but also make it a point to start the 2018 portion of their schedule with a fresh outlook.

“After the (East Providence) Christmas tournament, I said, ‘Our next game is in 2018,’” Rizzo said. “It’s a new year – 2017 wasn’t kind to us, and I knew we had a brutal first half to our season against Portsmouth, Westerly, and Barrington – so I told them, ‘You guys have to hang in there.’ And this year’s team seems like it’s sticking together, and it’s getting good senior leadership.”

The Cougars appeared as if they were going to be well on their way to a convincing win in the opening half of Monday’s game, as they raced out to leads of 16-9 and 23-15 while keeping the Panthers from doing any damage in the paint.

NP’s lead expanded to 15 (38-23), but after the Panthers sliced their deficit to 11 in the final 23 seconds of the half, Johnston caught fire in the first five minutes of the second and rattled off 17 of the half’s first 20 points to grab a 44-41 lead.

“It seems like sometimes we’ll have those mental lapses defensively, and then offensively, we’ll go through two, three, or four-minute spurts when we can’t buy a basket,” added the NP head coach. “I told them, ‘Sometimes, offensively, you’re going to be on, but if you’re not on, you have to play defense. You should never have a night off from defense, and I think this year, we’ve been playing a lot better defensively.”

But a minute later, a pullup jumper by Xavier Chaplin and a coast-to-coast layup by Rohelia gave the Cougars back their lead, and for the next 6½ minutes, both teams kept the crowd on the edges of the bleachers as they battled back and forth for the lead.

Holding a 63-62 lead with 3:23 to go, the Cougars then broke away from Johnston when Rizzo Jr. and Tyreek Jones swished back-to-back three-pointers, and after a turnover by the Panthers, Rohelia made it a 70-62 game with 2:08 on the clock by hitting the back end of two free throws. The Panthers were never heard from again and didn’t get closer than five points the rest of the way.

The game’s top scorer was Johnston senior guard Dylan Durante, who is currently third in D-II in scoring (22.6 points per game) and tops in three-pointers (34). He buried six treys and finished with 27 points, but only one other Panther was able to score more than eight points, Matt Sabitoni, who added 12.

As for the Cougars, Jones also poured in 14 points and added nine rebounds, Grant Prete tossed in seven points, and Nevin Gordon and Chaplin came off the bench to add six points and some quality minutes. Nick Mollo was held scoreless for the first time this season, but he still contributed seven assists and four steals.

NP was coming off a 67-51 victory over Tolman last Wednesday night at the Tigers’ Donaldson Gymnasium that saw four players score in double digits: Rizzo Jr. (18), Rohelia (15), Mollo (14), and Prete (13).

The Cougars are back home tonight with a 7 p.m. game against Narragansett, which is 5-0 in the league. On Friday, NP will visit West Warwick for a 7 p.m. contest.