Woonsocket storms into Final Four

Woonsocket storms into Final Four

All eyes are on Woonsocket’s Denzel Lyles, #1, as he puts in a layup during the opening half of Sunday’s Elite Eight matchup at CCRI-Warwick. Lyles scored 17 points to help the Novans defeat Barrington, 82-71, and advance to this weekend’s Final Four at URI’s Ryan Center. (Photos by Chuck Nadeau / www.chuckn.com)
Elite Eight victory over Eagles sets up Novans-Clippers duel in state semifinals

WARWICK – Not a lot of people would have predicted at the beginning of the boys’ basketball season that Woonsocket would be playing in the Open Tournament’s Final Four in the middle of March.

Heck, even their head coach, T.J. Ciolfi, was hoping three months ago that if his Villa Novans could put together a strong season in the state’s top division and a decent run in the Division I playoffs, they could receive one of the 16 spots in the marquee tournament, which would be a feat that the program had never accomplished before.

But the Novans did their head coach proud by not only posting their best regular-season record in a decade, but also reaching the Division I semifinals and landing the fifth seed in the Open Tournament.

And they didn’t stop there. After grabbing a 42-29 victory over 12th-seeded La Salle in their tourney opener last Thursday, the Novans punched their tickets to this weekend’s Final Four at URI’s Ryan Center on Sunday afternoon by posting a thrilling 82-71 victory over 13th-seeded Barrington in their Elite Eight matchup at CCRI-Warwick’s Cullen Field House.

Down by a 69-65 score with 3:53 to play, the Novans ran off 13 straight points to pull away from the Eagles and earn their first trip to the state semifinals since the 2009-10 season.

“This actually means a lot,” said Woonsocket senior guard Dwayne Robinson-O’Hagan, who scored a game-high 30 points. “A lot of people thought we wouldn’t be able to do this, and now we’re just proving everybody wrong. This feels amazing. I’ve never been in this predicament before.”

One person who has been in this predicament before is Ciolfi, who will become the first head coach in the nearly decade-long history of the Open Tournament to take two different schools to the Open Tournament – in the 2012-13 season, he took Division III North Smithfield to the Ryan Center.

Ciolfi admitted during his post-game remarks to the media that, yes, you could have counted him among the folks during the preseason who thought his squad could be good enough to get to the Open Tournament and maybe spend two games there. But now that his team, which will take a 21-6 overall record to Kingston, is a couple of wins away from its program’s first state title, his mindset has changed.

“This is the first time that Woonsocket has made the (open) tournament, so that was the goal,” he said. “To go to the Ryan Center? I hate to say we’re playing with house money, but my goodness, I wouldn’t have set that as a goal at the beginning of the season. But now that were there – we’re in Division I, we’ve seen everybody that we could potentially play – why not go win two more? That’s not impossible.”

The Novans will play an all-too-familiar opponent in their Final Four opener on Saturday at 4 p.m., neighboring rival Cumberland, which defeated Toll Gate in its Elite Eight contest, 65-51.

This will be the fourth time both teams will oppose each other, but the first since early January. They split their regular-season series – Cumberland posting an 80-71 victory on Dec. 4 and Woonsocket returning the favor, 64-59, on Jan. 9 – and the Novans topped the Clippers in the Roadshow Holiday Classic on Dec. 28, 72-50.

“It’s (going to be) boring,” Ciolfi jokingly said. “Tell (Cumberland head coach) Gary (Reedy) I said I’d rather play somebody else. But this will be cool for our part of the state. They should move that game to Bryant and pack Bryant. It’s an awesome rivalry, so why not?”

In order to reach the Final Four, Woonsocket needed to overcome a tough challenge from the Eagles, who attacked the Novans with their outside shooting and bagged 10 three-pointers in the game, including five in the opening 9:48 of play that gave Barrington its biggest lead of the contest, 27-18.

But the Novans outscored the Eagles by a 20-9 margin in the final 5½ minutes of the half to take a two-point lead at the break, and sophomore supersub Eric Agyemang keyed the run with eight points and some strong play on the boards, an effort that wasn’t lost upon Ciolfi after the game.

“I knew (Barrington) could shoot; I didn’t know they could shoot like that,” he said. “I think Eric Agyemang gave us big minutes in the first half that really saved us. You could see how the game was going and it was like, ‘This isn’t going to work.’ And when he came in, we got bigger and faster, and we led at halftime even though we got totally outplayed, so that was good.”

Both teams battled for the lead through most of the second half. The Novans took a 50-44 lead with 10:53 to play, only to watch the Eagles come back to tie the score at 54-54 with 8:30 on the clock, and after a three-pointer by Robinson-O’Hagan gave the Novans another sizeable lead, 64-59, with 5:24 to play, the Eagles came back with a 10-1 run to grab their 69-65 lead.

But that’s when the Novans switched to a zone defense, and not only did that give the Eagles problems, but it helped fuel the Novans’ 13-point run. A pair of free throws by junior center Ousmane Kourouma with 3:35 to play and a baseline jumper by Robinson-O’Hagan 27 seconds later tied the score, and after the Eagles missed a three-pointer, sophomore forward Denzel Lyles gave Woonsocket back the lead for good with a jumper from the free-throw line with 2:31 on the clock.

“It was (assistant coach Dennis Harmon’s) idea to switch to a zone with about four minutes left,” said Ciolfi “That’s all him. Once we switched to a zone, I don’t think (Barrington) scored again.”

With 2:13 to play, senior guard Justo Colon came up with a big steal near midcourt that he turned into a fast-break layup, and 19 seconds later, Robinson-O’Hagan made it a 75-69 contest by swishing a pair of free throws. While the Eagles missed two more three-point shots, the Novans built their lead to 78-69 with a minute to play.

“We know we can score anytime we want,” Robinson-O’Hagan added. “We just had to make sure we boxed out and stopped (Barrington) from shooting threes. They brought their game. I have respect for them. A lot of people can’t play with us, and today they did.”

Lyles finished the game with 17 points and senior forward Josue Hernandez and Kourouma each ended up with 12 and played well on the glass. Barrington was led by its junior guards, as William Rywolt scored 24 points, Brendan Conaty added 19, and Ryan Bonneau had 12.

Barrington’s William Ryvolt, right, can’t keep up with Woonsocket’s Dwayne Robinson-O’Hagan as he drives to the basket during Sunday’s Elite Eight matchup at CCRI-Warwick. Ryvolt scored 24 points to lead Barrington, but Robinson-O’Hagan netted a game-high 30 points.
Woonsocket junior center Ousmane Kourouma, shown in action earlier this season, scored 12 points and played well on the boards to help the Novans defeat Barrington, 82-71, in the Elite Eight on Sunday afternoon at CCRI-Warwick. For the first time in their program’s history, the Novans will play in the Final Four at URI’s Ryan Center and take on neighboring Cumberland on Saturday at 4 p.m. (Breeze photo by Eric Benevides)