Sports editor emeritus
PAWTUCKET — Playing a rare Saturday afternoon home game, St. Raphael Academy pushed first-place La Salle Academy to the limit before the Rams’ superiority finally manifested itself in the final minute.
The Saints, who had a chance to tie the game with 25 seconds left, came up short in the end, 64-61, as the Rams made their final six points from the free throw line.
St. Raphael Academy, now 3-8 in Division I action, got 23 points off the bench from senior Alcino Aviles-Soares. Forward Graham Lynch hit a pair of huge three-pointers early, ran into foul trouble and finished with 14 points. SRA center Chris Luciano was held to 11 points, and only two baskets under the hoop, where the powerful senior usually cleans up.
La Salle, now 11-1, put four players in double figures. Senior guard Brenden Nigro hit all seven of his free throws, including four in the final minute, to keep the Saints at bay. Sophomore guard Lawrence Sabir netted eight of his 13 points in the second half.
“He’s a nice-looking player,” SRA coach Tom Sorrentine said of Sabir. “He made a three-pointer near the end of the first half that was really a big basket for them.”
St. Raphael, which hadn’t played a game in 10 days due to weather issues, fell behind 9-2 before Luciano drained the first of nine SRA threes on the day. Aviles-Soares made another and then Luciano converted a traditional three-point play to bring SRA within 13-11.
In short order, Lynch nailed two treys and Luciano added another for a 22-15 Saints lead with 6:04 left in the first half. On the next La Salle possession, Lynch picked up his third foul and went to the bench for the rest of the half. La Salle went back on top 29-26 in the final minute of the first half. After Aviles-Soares made two free throws, Sabir drained an open three, then raced down the court and blocked a Saints’ layup at the buzzer to protect a 32-28 lead for the visitors heading into halftime.
La Salle switched from zone to a man-for-man defense for most of the second half, putting wide-body center Doug Harrison on Luciano, who netted just one basket after intermission. However, Aviles-Soares found plenty of room to operate from the top of the key and collected 16 points in the second half to keep the Saints within striking distance.
“He gives us a little toughness and rebounding that we really need,” Sorrentine said. “Alcino had 17 points off the bench against Hope so this is two good games for him recently. I have been using him off the bench … I think we’re going to have to start him now.”
SRA showed a lot of positives against La Salle.
“We did a good job breaking their press,” Sorrentine pointed out. “They normally get a lot of points off their press but we avoided turning the ball over, for the most part. They are the type of team that can take a turnover or long rebound and turn it into quick points. I kept telling our kids ‘You have to get back on defense’ and I thought we did that pretty well.”
La Salle went out to a 40-32 lead early in the second half before Lynch hit a three and Aviles-Soares scored on a deft pass from Holloway. The point guard, who handled most of the press-breaking chores against La Salle, banged down two free throws at the 9:40 mark to bring SRA within 42-39 but the Rams then scored four points in a row.
Aviles-Soares drilled consecutive threes to make it a 46-45 game with 7:11 left on the scoreboard clock. La Salle then got a basket and two free throws from Sabir, who raised his game to another level when things got tight in the second half.
The fearless sophomore added a bucket and two more freebies for a 58-50 lead with three minutes left, seemingly putting an end to SRA’s upset hopes. But Lynch canned a three 20 seconds later and then Luciano scored on a well-designed play, taking a pass from the left corner and converting a layup. It was now 58-55 with 1:25 left in the game.
After a missed shot by La Salle, Lynch got fouled and missed the front end of a 1-and-1. La Salle turned the ball over on its next possession and Aviles-Soares answered, driving to the hoop for a basket and a free throw that would have tied the game with 25 seconds left. Alas, the free throw spun off the rim. La Salle then made six straight free throws to counter a driving lineup by Holloway with 10 seconds left and two free throws by the crafty guard with four seconds left.
La Salle left the gym knowing it had dodged a bullet, holding off St. Raphael on a poor-shooting night for the Rams, who scored most of their baskets on aggressive moves to the hoop. The Saints, on the other hand, scored 27 points on threes. Only Aviles-Soares aggressively took the ball inside, refusing to be denied.
“We can take some positives from this game,” Sorrentine said. “I’m not exactly sure how many wins we need to make the playoffs. We have to start finishing games. We have to start winning games. The kids know it.”
SRA gets another crack at a Division I power on Tuesday evening when it hosts Smithfield, 10-3 and a recent winner over La Salle. The Sentinels smacked SRA 65-50 in Smithfield on Jan. 28.