2013-02-28 / News

Third-seeded Skippers draw Cranston West in first round

State tournament begins for NK Thursday at CCRI
BY MARGO SULLIVAN


Senior standouts Justin Pratt, Chris Hess and Owen Heath hope to lead the Skippers to a state title. North Kingstown was named the tournament’s No. 3 seed. Senior standouts Justin Pratt, Chris Hess and Owen Heath hope to lead the Skippers to a state title. North Kingstown was named the tournament’s No. 3 seed. Owen Heath, Justin Pratt and Chris Hess have played together since they were in sixth grade, but the next basketball game they play could be their last as teammates.

Or it could be the beginning of their quest to bring the state championship home to Fairway Drive.

North Kingstown High’s starting five – with Owen at center, Chris and Justin at forward, and Matt Quainoo and Austin Barry in the backcourt – will lead the Skippers into the state championship tournament Thursday, with an 8:15 p.m. tip-off against Cranston West.

The Skippers (21-3, 16-3) are the third seed in the tournament behind Classical (18-5, 15-3) and La Salle Academy (17-6, 16-2). The brackets were announced Tuesday night over cable television.

Some fans thought the Skippers already lost their bid for a state title last week when Bishop Hendricken knocked North Kingstown out of the Division I tournament, head coach Aaron Thomas said.

All last weekend, Thomas said, people were telling him they were sorry about the way the Skippers’ season ended. But, in reality, the Skippers are still alive.

“Think of the Division I playoff as the Big East Tournament,” he said. “And now, we’re going to the NCAA’s.”

The Rhode Island Interscholastic League changed the format for the state championship in response to complaints from the small schools saying the format did not give them a fair chance to win. The format has changed in two of the last three years.

Last year, 32 schools were in the tournament. This year, the league named 16 teams broken up into four regions, and Region 1 started play Wednesday with top-seed Classical going up against the No. 16 seed West Warwick at Rhode Island College. Also on Wednesday night, the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds, Westerly and North Providence, battled to advance to the quarterfinals.

In Region 2, La Salle faced off against Bishop Hendricken, and Coventry took on Hope, the winner of the Division I playoffs. Results were not available by press time.

Play continues Thursday in Region 3 with No. 11 Barrington and No. 6 Mount Pleasant squaring off at 6 p.m. at the Community College of Rhode Island Knight Campus. The winner will advance to Sunday’s quarterfinal round to meet the winner of the Falcons and Skippers.

The Skippers have played every school in their region at least once during the regular season.

In Region 4, North Smithfield, the fifth seed and the only team with an undefeated record at 24- 0, tips off against No. 12 Shea at Roger Williams University. No. 4 Cumberland will face No. 13 Prout in the other Region 4 game.

The first-round games for the Skippers are all at CCRI’s Warwick campus and will be streamed live at CoxSportsOnline.com. The quarterfinal action moves to Providence College’s Alumni Hall on Sunday. The final four games and the championship game will all be played at the University of Rhode Island’s Ryan Center starting March 8.

On paper, the Skippers should have an edge against the Falcons. The two squads have faced off twice during the regular season, and the Skippers won both games by a combined 42 points: a 61-43 win at Cranston West on Jan. 11, and a 71-47 drubbing at home on senior night on Feb. 12. But nothing’s guaranteed.

“Anybody can beat anybody,” said Owen, a 6-foot-5 senior from Jamestown. He said the Skippers have to do four things to beat Cranston West.

“I think it’s just playing our game, working well as a team, playing good defense and moving the ball well,” he said.

Last week, a red flag went up for the Skippers when they were upset in the Division I playoffs to Bishop Hendricken, 53-49, a team they dispatched twice in the regular season.

“Hopefully it was a real wakeup call,” said Thomas.

According to the head coach, the Hendricken players knew what to expect from the Skippers, so they made adjustments and came up with a game plan that worked.

“I don’t know what happened,” Owen said. “They were a little more in our faces.” The main problem was that the Hawks didn’t allow North Kingstown to play its brand of basketball, he added.

According to Owen, the Skippers like to generate points off defense, but the Hawks protected the ball and didn’t let North Kingstown get into its game.

“They weren’t intimidated by us,” Owen said. “They took us out of our game early, and we never got going. I don’t think we had one transition point.”

North Kingstown still had a chance to win the game, though, but the Skippers lost their shooting touch as they went down the stretch.

“We didn’t finish,” said Owen.

“It’s very difficult to beat the same team three times in a year,” Thomas said.

Asked if the other teams were starting to solve the Skippers, Thomas said familiarity definitely becomes a factor. The other teams know what they have to do.

Hendricken executed well, Thomas said.

“They only turned the ball over three times,” he said. On top of that, the Hawks’ senior captain, Kazre Cummings, who normally isn’t a 3-point shooting threat, hit two treys and both went down at critical moments in the game.

Finally, Hendricken may have been more motivated since it had to win two games in the Division I tournament to qualify for the Sweet 16 selection. The North Kingstown game was a must-win for them, Thomas said.

But the game wasn’t do-or-die for the Skippers. North Kingstown was already in the state tournament due to the number of power points it had earned during the regular season. They were guaranteed a high seed no matter what happened in the division tournament.

“We had won so many games, there was no way we could have dropped out,” said Thomas.

The coaches gave the Skippers a rest over the weekend, but the team returned to practice on Monday.

“They should be well rested,” Thomas said. “They can still accomplish what they want to accomplish.”

Since the Skippers have had so much success this year, the coaches don’t intend on changing their game plan to adjust to their opponents. But Thomas is hoping the Skippers “get hot.”

Sometimes, Thomas said, the team that wins the states is the team that wields the hot hand at tournament time. Hope High, for example, has shown a pattern of coming alive in the postseason and the East Siders repeated the pattern last weekend by winning the Division I title.

Thomas said La Salle is one of the favorites to win the state title, but the Rams are not at full strength after losing key players. One became academically ineligible, and another is off the team for undisclosed. reasons.

La Salle will also play the first game of the tournament without an unnamed player, who was suspended by the Rhode Island Interscholastic League due to a fight that followed the game against Hope in the Division I playoffs.

La Salle and St. Raphael Academy are the only teams the Skippers did not defeat this season.

According to a Providence Journal poll asking who will win the state tournament, Classical was the favorite, receiving 16 percent of the vote. The second highest vote getter was undefeated North Smithfield, with 13 percent. North Kingstown and Hope were next at 12 percent. Cranston West, the Skippers’ opponent, received just seven votes. Nearly 400 people had voted by press time.

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