EAST PROVIDENCE — Two wins over the last seven days, including an impressive road victory against Classical and another against a hard-scrabble Smithfield side that beat the locals in the …
EAST PROVIDENCE — Two wins over the last seven days, including an impressive road victory against Classical and another against a hard-scrabble Smithfield side that beat the locals in the regular season, sent the East Providence High School boys' basketball team into the Open State Championship Tournament semifinals this weekend.
The Townies will face a familiar foe in perennial power and fellow Division I opponent Bishop Hendricken in the "Final Four" Saturday night, March 11, at the University of Rhode Island's Ryan Center at 6 p.m. At 4 p.m. the same day and site, reigning D-I champ LaSalle faces the lone true upstart in the event, Division II Middletown, in the other semi. The state championship game the next night, March 12, back at the Ryan Center at 6 p.m.
The Hawks have traditionally been the Townies' Achille's Heel. EPHS lost to Hendricken in their last three playoff meetings, including last year in the opening round of the Open State event.
“The thing that gives us trouble with them is that they're just bigger than us. They rebound. They play as a true team. They don't care about individual statistics. It's all about winning with them. That's it,” EPHS head coach Joe Andrade said of the Hawks.
The teams met just once this winter in Division I regular season league game on January 3 in city when Hendricken defeated the Townies, 65-52.
"We actually won the first, third and fourth quarters. It's just that they killed us in the second quarter, 28-2. That was the game right there. We just couldn't make a shot. It was one of those quarters. We couldn't do anything right and they didn't do anything wrong. The also shot 28 free throws in the game and we only shot 10," said Andrade.
After the loss to the Hawks at the turn of the year, the Townies won seven of their next eight games to join Hendricken, LaSalle and a few others at the top of the D-I standings. However, it was around that time when EPHS lost a couple of key contributors (Will Winfield and Max Collins) to injury while two solid role players were dismissed from the team for academic and behavioral issues.
The Townies lost three of their last five regular season games to slip to seventh in the final standings. EPHS beat Woonsocket in its league playoff opener before losing to eventual champion LaSalle in the D-I quarters.
Back relatively healthy, though still not whole, EPHS mustered enough to defeat Classical 51-47 to open states, then held on to beat Smithfield by five in the quarters. The Townies had lost to the Purple by 18 and to the Sentinels by eight during the regular season.
Of reaching the state semis, Andrade added, "I'd put it at the top of the list, No. 1. When you consider everything we've been through this year, the injuries and the kids we've lost for other reasons, I'd say it's a big accomplishment. To beat Classical on the road and then to beat Smithfield is pretty impressive in my mind."
With their attention firmly trained on the Hawks, Andrade said Hendricken senior guards Azmar Abdullah and Eze Wali, at 6-foot-2 and 6-feet, respectively, pose a handful for their smaller, thinner EPHS counterparts. And in 6'2" sophomore Dylan Lynch, Andrade said the Hawks have a ferocious rebounder, whose single-minded purpose is to get caroms.
"Abdullah and Wali are their leaders and the other kids accept their roles," Andrade added. “The Lynch kid, all he cares about is getting rebounds. It doesn’t matter to him if he scores. We're really going to have to hit the boards hard. If we can contain them on the boards, then we can have a chance."
If chance turns into reality, then the Townies would advance to Sunday’s state title tilt opposite a LaSalle side it has lost to three times already this year (57-56 and 59-53 during the regular season, 60-49 in the D-I playoffs) or the true “Cinderella” of the tournament, Division II runner-up Middletown.
LaSalle, which won the D-I championship at the buzzer over Hendricken, is the state tourney’s top seed. The fifth-seeded Islanders, who lost by seven to Johnston in its league final, beat fellow D-II side Chariho to begin states then upset D-I Barrington in the quarters.
“LaSalle is just a tough matchup for us. They’re big and long. They have a good mix of experienced players and sophomores. To me they’re the most complete team in the state,” said Andrade. “I don’t much about Middletown except they’re on a good run. Going back to my days coaching at Pilgrim (Warwick) I just know they’re a scrappy, tough school. They beat Barrington, who we lost to, so they would be a tough opponent, no doubt.”