PORTSMOUTH — You’ve never seen a happier coach after a loss.
Joe Occhi was all smiles after his Portsmouth High School boys’ varsity basketball team fell to North Providence, 81-79, in a wild double-overtime thriller Friday night at home.
While most coaches may have considered the loss heartbreaking, Mr. Occhi was elated by his team’s never-give-up attitude.
“I thought we found our character tonight,” he said. “Earlier in the season we kind of gave away leads that we had at the end. Tonight we fought back.”
In a night bathed in purple — students, adult viewers and players during warmups wore the colors in support of Chris Herren’s anti-substance abuse Project Purple initiative — the Patriots nearly pulled off a comeback for the ages.
Down by 8 points with under three minutes to go, the Patriots clawed back — partly thanks to consecutive 3-pointers by freshman Cole Swider — and senior Brennan Tierney found himself at the foul line to shoot two with half a second left, his team down 65-63.
Tierney’s’s first attempt was all net, sending the home crowd into hysterics. His second shot, however, bounded off the back of the rim … then off the right of the rim, the back again and through the hoop. Overtime.
Mr. Occhi was later asked what he was thinking while watching Tierney’s second free throw.
“The one that hit every part of the rim? The first thing I was thinking I was really hoping for him because in the very beginning of the season he had some bad luck at the end of games from the line. He’s more than made up for that now. He’s absolved,” he said with a laugh.
In the first overtime, a 3-pointer by the Cougars put them up 70-67 with 50 seconds left. After Swider missed a 3-pointer, North Providence was fouled with 25 seconds left and sank one of two, making it a 71-67 game with just 20 seconds left.
Immediately afterwards, the Cougars stole the ball from the Patriots and senior guard Matt Sewall intentionally fouled. The game seemed lost right then and there.
But North Providence missed the one-for-one and junior forward Colin Tullson drained a 3-pointer with 8 seconds left, making it 71-70. Portsmouth then got the ball back and Tierney was fouled, sending him to the line to possibly win the game. This time, however, he missed the second shot.
The Patriots couldn’t maintain their magic in the second overtime period, but stayed right with the Cougars until the final buzzer. They were hampered by the loss of leading scorer Swider (28 points), who fouled out in overtime.
“That was a heck of a high school basketball game. I just feel drained. I thought they played great and I thought we played great,” said Mr. Occhi, who had special words of praise for Tierney, who ended up with 15 points.
“I tell you what: I’ll go to war with him any day,” he said.
The Patriots came out strong to begin the game, leading 26-11 with 7:40 to go in the first half. Swider had 16 points in the first half including a couple of 3s, with Tierney and Sewall also playing well. (Sewall scored 13 points overall, with senior forward Ryan McVicker adding another 12.)
But then the momentum shifted, with the Cougars going on an 11-0 run. The first half buzzer sounded with North Providence up, 33-30.
“We got out to a great start,” said Mr. Occhi. “I want to say there was an adrenalin rush, and then it kind of caught up with us and then we were struggling to get back emotionally. You could see it. (North Providence) kept running the same play after getting the same guy open and we burned three timeouts in the first half to address it. The second half, they did address is.”
The visiting team also had a decided height advantage over Portsmouth, which led to many more second chances for the Cougars.
“They were a bit bigger than us,” said Mr. Occhi, who was proud of the way his team fought. “(North Providence is) a good team; they’re in first place in their division. We can hang and I’m comfortable going forward.
The Patriots are now 5-5 in Division II-East. They next play at Cumberland Monday night.
Project Purple night
The loss couldn’t dampen the spirit of all those wearing purple Friday night to show support for Portsmouth resident Chris Herren’s Project Purple anti-substance abuse campaign.
“We started this two years ago and close to 300,000 participated this year,” said Mr Herren, a former NBA player and recovered addict who speaks about substance abuse to students around country. “For me it’s heartwarming, extremely rewarding. Jenny Swider and I have put a lot of effort into this. To see it pay off it’s amazing.”
Ms. Swider, marketing and communications director for the Herren Project, also happens to be the mother of Cole Swider, whom she was rooting on Friday.
“This week has been amazing,” she said. “We’ve had so many supportive people, not just in Portsmouth but nationwide. The thing about Project Purple is that it’s student-driven, so adults we can support them by wearing purple. It’s allowing kids to make good choices.”
When asked before the game if he was going to warm up with the team, Mr. Herren laughed.
“My warmup days are over,” he said. “I’ve been all over the country for the past three days. It’s nice to be home and to just soak it in.”