The University of Rhode Island’s Thomas M. Ryan Center used to be a second home for the Bishop Hendricken basketball team. It was the destination the Hawks always wanted to reach, and for seven consecutive years, it was the place where they celebrated.
They’re happy to be back.
For the first time since they won the last of their seven straight championships in 2010, the Hawks are headed to the Ryan Center. They’ll take on top-seeded La Salle in the second half of a state tournament semifinal doubleheader on Friday night at 8 p.m. No. 6 Coventry and No. 10 Central will square off at 6 p.m. The winners play for the title Saturday at 7:30 p.m., also at the Ryan Center.
“It’s the first time in four years,” said head coach Jamal Gomes. “It feels good. The kids are excited, the coaches are excited. We’re ready to get after it.”
Hendricken’s last championship came in the final year before the Rhode Island Interscholastic League introduced the open state tournament, with teams from every division. Since then, the Hawks hadn’t advanced past the quarterfinals in the state tournament until their victory over Mt. Hope on Sunday, which punched their ticket to the semis.
“I think we’re playing our best basketball at the right time,” Gomes said.
For the fifth-seeded Hawks, the return trip to the Ryan Center and the chance to greet their rivals when they get there adds up to a huge opportunity. The focus this week has been on running with it.
“It’s all about the opportunity and seizing the moment,” Gomes said. “Our goal was to get here. The opportunity to play your rival in a state semifinal, that doesn’t happen very often. Our goal is to make the most of it.”
It won’t be easy.
The Rams went 17-1 in the regular season and steamrolled to the Division I championship, winning their three playoff games by an average of 13 points. In the state tournament, they blew past No. 16 Middletown in the first round then held off an upset bid by defending state champion Classical to clinch a spot in the semis.
La Salle has also had Hendricken’s number. In a February regular-season meeting, the Rams scored more points in the first half than Hendricken had given up in several whole games and went on to a 10-point win. When the teams met again in the Division I semifinals, the Rams were in control throughout on their way to a 16-point win.
“They’re a very good team, very well-coached, they’ve got great balance,” Gomes said. “The first game, they shot about 60 percent and we battled but they held us off. The second time, they kind of punched us in the mouth and we didn’t recover.”
La Salle scored 76 points in the regular-season meeting and 78 in the playoffs. No other Rhode Island team scored more than 61 on the Hawks all season.
It’s clear what job No. 1 is.
“We’ve got to make everything a grind for them,” Gomes said. “We can’t let them get out on the break and get their tempo going. I think tempo control is going to be one of the big keys to the game.”
The Rams are led in scoring by 6-foot-1 seniors Adrian LaFleur and Keon Wilson, who both average in double figures, but they’re far from the only ones who can do damage. Junior point guard Brendan Nigro drives the fast-paced attack, senior guard Scott Deffley is a burst of energy off the bench, senior center Doug Harrison controls the paint and players like Lawrence Sabir Jr., have provided lifts at various times.
“They’re very balanced,” Gomes said. “They can drive to the basket, they can shoot it deep, the kid Harrison keeps you honest.”
And the Rams seem to be focused. Last year, as the No. 2 seed, they were upset by Hendricken in the state tournament quarterfinals. They’ve lost one league game since.
“Ask my team if they’re satisfied,” La Salle head coach Eric Simonelli said after the Division I tournament win over the Hawks. “It’s a big win tonight in a big rivalry game, but we’ve got a lot more in us. This isn’t the state championship tonight. We’re not satisfied yet.”
The Hawks are tasked with slowing the Rams down, and Gomes feels they’re playing at a level that gives them a shot. After a rough shooting night in a state tournament opening win over East Greenwich, they bounced back with one of their best performances of the season in the win over Mt. Hope.
“East Greenwich, I kind of had a feeling that would be a grind, and then we had an off-shooting night on top of it,” Gomes said. “But Mt. Hope, I was very pleased with our performance. I think the guys picked up a little bit of confidence. I think we’re peaking at the right time.”
Peaking for a trip to the Ryan Center? It’s been a while since the Hawks could say that, and they’re ready to make it count.
“La Salle is very tough,” Gomes said. “Hopefully, the third time is the charm. If we play our best, I think we’ve got a shot. We just have to get it done.”