Final Four fever grips Clippers

Final Four fever grips Clippers

Cumberland sophomore guard Dante Aviles-Santos, left, guards Middletown senior guard Tyrese O’Loughlin during the first half of Sunday’s Elite Eight game at CCRI-Warwick. Not only did Aviles-Santos play strong defense, but he also scored a team-high 20 points to help the Clippers defeat the Islanders, 67-50. (Breeze photos by Eric Benevides)
Boys’ hoop team battles mighty Hendricken in Saturday’s state semis

WARWICK – In order to be the best, sometimes you have to beat the best. And if the Cumberland High boys' basketball team plans to win the state championship this weekend at URI's Ryan Center, it's going to have to topple arguably the best team in Rhode Island in two-time defending state champion Bishop Hendricken.

For the first time in 40 seasons, the Clippers are heading to the Final Four of the state playoffs, thanks to their 67-50 win over Division II rival Middletown in an Elite Eight matchup at CCRI-Warwick's Vin Cullen Field House.

The fourth-seeded Clippers will be the only D-II team playing in Saturday's semifinals, which not only feature the top-seeded Hawks, but also the team that nipped Hendricken in overtime in the Division I championship game, second-seeded Mount Pleasant, and a surprise D-I team in 11th-ranked South Kingstown.

The Clippers and Hawks, who also won their respective regular-season titles, will kick off an action-packed doubleheader at 4 p.m., with the Mount Pleasant-S.K. contest scheduled for 6, and all eyes will be on Cumberland's bid to upset the Hawks and become the first CHS team since the 1935-36 squad to reach the state finals.

"It's going to be fun," said Cumberland head coach Gary Reedy. "Just being down there is going to be an experience for the kids. It's something they're going to have for the rest of their lives."

The Hawks, who are 22-2 in RIIL action, roughed up eighth-seeded Cranston East, 76-55, in the contest before the Clippers-Islanders showdown. Reedy got to catch a few minutes of the game, which saw the Hawks break open a close game with 51 second-half points, five Hendricken players score in double digits, and arguably the best player in Rhode Island, senior guard Tyrone Weeks, torch the nets for a game-high 29.

"They are tenacious on defense and they run the break better than anyone in the state," Reedy said of Hendricken. "If they get the quick rebound, we have to get a guy on them and get back on defense, or else we're going to be in trouble right away. We're almost going to have to play a perfect game."

The Clippers were far from perfect in the opening minutes of its game against the Islanders (20-7), who grabbed a quick 11-2 lead by sinking its first three three-point attempts. But after a timeout by Reedy that saw him switch his team's defense, the Clippers began their comeback. They scored 12 of the first half's final 14 points (including the final eight) to take a 33-25 lead, and then proceeded to sink the Islanders in the opening stages of the second half, leading by as many as 18 points.

"We watched Middletown (in its quarterfinal-round victory over North Kingstown) and N.K. went into a zone (defense) against them, and they were having a really tough time, so we decided to play zone and they shot the lights out," Reedy said of his team's slow start. "Then we switched to man and we wore them out a little bit."

No player looked as worn out as the Clippers' standout point guard, junior Tyler Kolek, who was battling the flu and clearly playing at less than 100 percent. But Kolek dug down deep and still managed to score 18 points and contribute nine rebounds and eight assists.

"Tyler gutted it out," said Reedy, whose team's overall record is 24-2. "He had the flu and he was out three days, but he had an amazing performance. We probably saw the three-quarter Tyler tonight. We didn't really see the real Tyler, and he still had a good game."

Sophomore guard Dante Aviles-Santos shared game-high scoring honors with Middletown's Tyrese O’Loughlin by scoring 20 points, and junior center Jackson Zancan added 12 points and 11 rebounds, and while Reedy was happy with the performances of Kolek, Aviles-Santos, and Zancan, he was thrilled with the play of sophomore forward Brendan Raftery, who had 12 points and 10 boards and helped fuel the Clippers' first-half comeback.

"Raff came to play," said Reedy. "A couple of times, Middletown was really focusing on Tyler, but we were able to get the ball to Raff and he got some easy baskets, and that opened up a little bit of room for Tyler. The team goes through Tyler and Jackson, make no mistake about it, but the other guys played their roles tonight."

The Clippers began the open tournament last Thursday by posting a 73-60 victory over 13th-seeded Tiverton at Coventry High. The Tigers, who reached the Division III finals, gave the Clippers a battle, only trailing by a 30-29 score at halftime, but Cumberland opened the second half with a 12-2 run and never looked back. Zancan, who had 26 points and 13 rebounds, and Kolek teamed up to score 51 of their team's points.

Despite battling the flu, Cumberland junior guard Tyler Kolek nearly contributed a triple-double, as he tossed in 18 points and added nine rebounds and eight assists.