Since Christmas break, the Pilgrim boys’ basketball team has been on the upswing. A win and three close losses indicated that the Pats were headed in the right direction.
On Tuesday, though, the Pats reverted to their pre-Christmas form.
Ten turnovers in the first eight minutes, largely because of aggressive ball pressure from Johnston point guard Tyreek McPhail, put Pilgrim in a 17-point hole. The deficit ballooned from there, as the Pats lost 65-43 to the Panthers. Pilgrim fell to 2-7 in Division III. Johnston improved to 7-2.
The loss was Pilgrim’s fourth straight, but it was the only one during that stretch in which the Pats were essentially out of it by halftime.
“Since Christmas break, we’ve played a lot better,” Pilgrim head coach Mike Batalon said. “Tonight wasn’t one of those nights. But we’ve been in and had leads in the second half of all our previous games.”
The Panthers, who won their fourth straight game since a Jan. 4 loss to North Smithfield, came out of the gate on fire, while the Pats did just the opposite.
Pilgrim took a quick 2-0 lead on a jumper by Ryan Morris, but from there it was a struggle to hold on to the ball. Johnston scored 12 of the next 14 points, while Pilgrim turned the ball over seven times in 10 possessions.
“We didn’t come out with a lot of energy tonight,” Batalon said. “Johnston came ready to play, they got some fast-break points and we never recovered.”
Pilgrim’s Charles Johnson hit a three-pointer to make it 12-7, but then McPhail came to life. He scored on a driving layup on the next possession, and then picked the pocket of a Pilgrim player on his way up the court before taking that in for an uncontested layup. On the ensuing inbounds pass, he stole the ball and scored immediately, forcing the Pats into a timeout.
The entire six-point sequence took place in 16 seconds.
“Tyreek set the pace right off the bat with those steals,” Johnston head coach Steve DeMeo said. “He’s quick. He has a gift and he uses it to his full advantage. We haven’t had a guy that quick – quick feet, quick hands – like him, in a while.”
That made it 18-7 and the Panthers didn’t stop there. A putback by Steve Simone and four straight points from Ryan McKeon made the score 24-7.
Seth Lawson stemmed the tide for the Pats with a jumper, and a putback by Johnson made it 24-11. Pilgrim got as close as 29-17 on a three-point play by Dan Colabella before Johnston closed the half on a flurry.
Mark Breton scored on an and-one play, and Evan Hopson did the same thing on the Panthers’ next possession. Following a Jahshuan Jenkins jumper for Pilgrim, Alex DeNoncour hit a short shot and McKeon drove for a bucket.
Then, with time running out in the half, McKeon attempted a half-court three and was fouled on the attempt. He made all three free throws with no time on the clock to make it 42-19 at the half.
“We had an enjoyable halftime speech,” DeMeo said.
McPhail scored 10 points in the first half, while McKeon chipped in with nine. Breton had seven off the bench.
“The guys, like Ryan McKeon and Alex DeNoncour, they don’t get their names in the scoreboard but they do a lot of the dirty work there,” DeMeo said. “I thought coming off the bench, Mark Breton played really well.”
For Pilgrim, leading scorer Ryan Morris had only two points in the first half and finished the game with just 11.
“He’s our leading scorer,” Batalon said of Morris. “We want our offense to come inside-out. It’s a point of emphasis, but we’ve had some trouble doing it.”
In the second half, the Pats came out with more intensity and started to chip away early on. Six straight points from Morris in the early going, a three by Johnson and two free throws by Lawson made it a 16-point game, but the deficit was just too much to overcome.
Johnston immediately got back on track with Hopson, who scored six straight points of his own to make it 52-32 with about nine minutes to play, pushing the game out of reach.
“I think at that point you just try to get better,” Batalon said. “You take the game one possession at a time and you just keep working hard and try to build for the next one.”
Soon afterwards, Johnston emptied its bench and cruised to the finish line.
Pilgrim finished the game with 23 turnovers.
“We don’t have a natural point guard, and that hurts us at times,” Batalon said.
Hopson led all scorers with 13 points, while McPhail added 12. McKeon finished with nine and Breton and Simone each scored seven. Jason Salvatore had seven.
For the Pats, Morris and Johnson each had 11 points, while Colabella had six. Lawson and Luis Pimental chipped in with four apiece.
Now the Pats will try to get back to the way they have been playing. It should be easier this Friday, when they’ll travel to 3-6 Ponaganset for a 7 p.m. tip-off.