Tisbury boys are top cats in junior high hoops

The Tisbury Tigers celebrated their school's first boys title in 25 years. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Perhaps the warmup music ( Drake’s “Started at the Bottom, Now We’re Here”) was an omen.

But clearly there was just too much Cole Houston for the Edgartown Eagles as the Tisbury Tigers took their first Island boys interscholastic basketball championship in 25 years on Monday night at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School gym.

Young Mr. Houston poured in 27 of Tisbury’s 47 points en route to a 47-34 win. Lukah Vieira scored 17 to lead the Eagles (6-3). Gabe Oliveira had 12 points and Dylan Dyke 8 points to round out the Tiger scoring.

Curtis Fournier had eight points, Mercer Kelly four, Chris Patnaude three and John Morris two points for Edgartown in an absolute dogfight of a basketball game that featured runs and lead changes for both teams until Tisbury (7-1) put it away with several unanswered baskets with five minutes left in the second half.

While Cole had the points as the game’s dominant player, both teams showcased high-level athletes who made this casual fan forget he was watching eighth-graders. For example, Gabe Oliveira has a court sense of a veteran, anticipating when Cole was heading for a double or triple team and moved to a spot where he could take the ball for a shot or to reset for another Houston foray to the hoop.

On the other side, Lukah Vieira is a game-changer in his own right. Like Cole Houston, he will put the team on his back and carry it. The Eagle’s John Morris and Curtis Fournier don’t show up big on the scoresheet, but they ran the careful Edgartown game plan well and did the little things — boxing out, boards, doubling on defense — like veterans.

When Tisbury stormed to a 7-0 advantage in the opening five minutes and went up 10-0 a half minute later, it looked like an early night.

“Tisbury is a press team,” coach Joe Houston said before the contest. “We want to run the break, get the ball to Cole and Gabe and Dylan on the wings and go. But defense is our strong suit. We really work a it.”

Understatement. The Tigers were maniacal, pressing and trapping the Eagles from baseline to baseline. Stealing the ball, intercepting passes. They never stopped. Eagles’ coach Pat Mercier called a timeout at 10-2 and whispered some magic and it all changed.

Over the next seven minutes, the Eagles outscored the Tigers, 15-4, and led 17-14 with six minutes left in the half. Edgartown stayed in its game, Tisbury ran more, sometimes out of control, and led by a single point, 20-19, before Cole stole the ball and laid it in for a 22-19 halftime Tiger advantage.

Before the national anthem was sung by Edgartown student Warner Hess and captains Houston and Morris presented the colors to a detachment of Edgartown policemen, Eagles coach Pat Mercier was clear. “We play good defense and we play a team game. And we hope the basketball gods are with us,” he smiled. The teams had tested each other twice in the regular season with Tisbury winning both, one with a buzzer-beater.

Tisbury’s bench song is “Work,” as in “work, work, work” by Iggy Azalea. It’s embraced by all, including eighth grader Graham Lewis, who dons a furry tiger outfit for the games at which he capers, pleads, and throws rolled-up tiger tee-shirts to a Tiger Nation that numbered several hundred for the championship.

“Yes,” came a muffled answer to this reporter’s question, “it is very hot in here. I’d say throwing the tee-shirts is the best part of the job.” Graham got the job by audition. “I showed them my best dance moves,” he said of his audition. That’s how he got to be mascot. “Well, that and no one else wanted to do it,” he said cheerily.

Cheers were abundant in Tigertown to begin the second half as Tisbury ripped off six straight for a nine-point lead. Edgartown played its game, controlling the boards, but they were undone by steals and tipped passes by Tisbury defenders who were in full-court press, harrassing Eagle ball-handlers the length of the floor.

Edgartown went four minutes without a basket before pulling to 30-23, then stepped up the pace to trail 32-27 with eight minutes left. After a grinding fast-paced first half with only three fouls called, officials Marc Rivers and Phil Hughes whistled six in a short span.

Tisbury began to pull away, lengthening the lead to 47-33 with 2:56 left. They were still running hard on offense until Coach Houston called “Score and time, guys. Remember time and score,” and the Tigers played keepaway for the remainder of the game.

“We gave them everything we had,” Coach Mercier said. “We played really good defense. Cole Houston is a special player. I’m proud of our effort. Ball control issues in the first half but we all had our shots. Theirs went down, ours didn’t. We just couldn’t beat the best team in the league tonight.”

Coach Houston, who has several Edgartown players on his travel team, credited the Eagles. “They played tough defense, forced us out of our game. We were out of rhythm there for a while. But in the second half, we got that lockdown defense and that was key for us.”

Tisbury parent and program volunteer Chris Porterfield noted that the players and their schools are the beneficiaries of the Houston’s and Mercier’s who devote long hours to the program. “Two games and two practices a week. That’s a big commitment they make for this program,” he said.