Facing off against two teams that have proven their offensive prowess, defense was definitely Hendricken’s saving grace in the state championship tournament.
Following a crushing defeat in the Division I tournament at the hands of the La Salle Rams, the Hawks came back in the state semifinal game to beat the Rams, 70-62. They only allowed the Rams to make 20 of 54 field goal attempts, in addition to forcing 14 turnovers on their way to the win.
The Rams’ biggest asset in their first two victories over the Hawks was their ability to score in transition. They scored four fast-break points Friday.
“The first two times, they smoked us,” head coach Jamal Gomes said. “They kicked our butts. They had us chasing them everywhere. We said we needed to play five-on-five. They need to see five guys. On offense, we needed to execute, take some air out of the ball and make sure we were getting good shots.”
Hendricken’s defense did not falter in the state championship, as the Hawks soared past the Central Knights, 50-35. Central shot 31 percent from the field. Its 35 points was a new season low for Central, whose previous low score was 48 in its win over North Kingstown in the quarterfinals. Following that, seven 3-pointers contributed to a 70-51 win over Coventry in the state semifinals.
“They have three or four guys who can really shoot the three ball,” Gomes said. “We said, ‘There can be no uncontested threes and no uncontested layups.’ Our defense was tremendous. That might have been our best defensive performance all year long.”
Mazzulla follows in
Joe Mazzulla won three state championships in his career at Bishop Hendricken. The little brother who watched from the stands got his own on Saturday.
Freshman Justin Mazzulla, a starter since day one, delivered solid performances against La Salle and Central and capped off his debut season with a championship.
“As a freshman, it’s really great,” Justin Mazzulla said. “I was brought up like this. I was always at the Ryan Center, because my brother played. It was always a great experience, I loved it. And I loved it so much that I had to get one of my own. I hope not to stop.”
Joe Mazzulla went on to a collegiate career at West Virginia University, where he helped lead the Mountaineers to the 2010 Final Four. Justin, despite earning a varsity spot and a starting nod as a freshman, has never been consumed with matching his brother’s accomplishments.
“I feel pressure like, ‘Oh my brother went D-I, did a lot of things, went to the Final Four, got three championships here,’” Justin said. “But I just call myself my own person and I try to accomplish the goals that I have within myself. I look up to them, but I tend not to look at the things that they’ve done, I look at the things they did to get those things done. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Joe is now an assistant coach at Fairmont State University in West Virginia and couldn’t be in Rhode Island for the weekend’s games. But the two were in contact before Saturday’s title game, discussing hopes for a championship they now share.
“I actually texted him before the game,” Justin said. “I said, ‘Joe, what can I do? I’m scared.’ He’s like, ‘Scared of what? Just go out there and play basketball.’ I said I’d go get one for him. He answered, ‘Do it, please.’ And I got one for him.’”
Key contributions help
fuel balanced attack
Nine different players scored for Hendricken in its two Final Four games, and nobody scored more than 12 points in either game.
That type of balance is nothing new for the Hawks, and it’s one of their big reasons for success. They didn’t have a star, but had a good core, with some role players who always seemed to rise to the occasion.
Senior E.J. Nygren was the poster boy. As a junior he didn’t make the varsity team but he stuck around on the junior varsity squad and earned himself a chance this year. When he got it, he ran with it. Nygren excelled on defense and used his old-fashioned set shot to provide Hendricken with a major scoring boost time and again. He had 12 points against La Salle and six against Central.
“E.J. Nygren played on our JV team last year,” Gomes said. “He comes off the bench knocking down threes, playing defense. He did it all year long. He was tremendous.”
Players like Ira Lough and Chris O’Brien stepped up at various times during the playoff run, and junior Jason Rosario scored seven key points against La Salle, including a three-pointer that helped the Hawks pull away just before halftime.
Home sweet home
URI’s Thomas M. Ryan Center was the site for all seven championships in Hendricken’s streak that ended in 2010. With two more wins there this year, the Hawks are 9-0 on the Ryan Center court.