Panthers win DII title

Salvatore's epic performance fuels JHS comeback


The Johnston boys basketball team completed its championship run, pulling off a 59-52 comeback win over Middletown in the Division II Championship on Sunday evening. It was the Panthers’ first boys championship since 1996. 

Middletown was firmly in control, taking an eight-point lead early in the third quarter and hitting shot after shot. Late in the third, senior guard Derek Salvatore would take control and lead an epic comeback throughout the fourth quarter.

Salvatore finished the night with 24 points, 20 of which coming in the second half and 16 in the fourth quarter to put on one of the greatest championship performances in school history. 

“I’m just so happy for my team, my coaches. I thank my coaches, the fans, I couldn’t do it without them. I lost (the championship) my freshman year so it feels so good to get it back. It feels so good,” said Salvatore. “I couldn’t have done it without my team, but I just knew that I had to get it done.”

“He knew. I think in the back of his mind he was like, ‘This is it and I have to leave it all out there,’” added Johnston coach Mike Bedrosian. “He wanted the ball in his hands. He’s the most unselfish, humble 1,000 point scorer there is. He finally told himself that he had to be selfish. Good things happen when the ball is in his hands.”

The Panthers would see its other stars step up in the fourth quarter, including Neari Vasquez, who hit a 3-pointer in the final four minutes that would turn into a four-point play. Vasquez finished with 14 points while Camani Batista added 12. 

“We got contributions from everyone. Neari accounted for seven points in two possessions, Anthony (Corsinetti) didn’t have an Anthony game, but he kept us in it by scoring six straight points, then Derek took over. That’s been the theme of the season. If one person is not getting theirs, another person is going to step in. That’s exactly what happened,” said Bedrosian.

Middletown came out fast in the opening half and the two teams would exchange leads in the first quarter. The Islanders heated up in the second quarter and would enter the halftime break with a 25-19 lead. 

“Our motto was that we had to stay together. When things are going bad, we have to stay together through it all. We stuck together in the end and finished it off,” said Salvatore. “We’re just so happy. This group, it’s the closest group I’ve ever seen. We’re all together every single day.”

Defensive adjustments also helped stymie the Middletown attack in the second half.

“We told them that this was nothing that we couldn’t overcome, but obviously, we were going to have to do something quickly. We felt going into the game that we had a lot of mismatches, so we played man (defense) and had a lot of isolations,” said Bedrosian.

Johnston entered the playoffs as the top seed after finishing first in Division II in the regular season. Although the Panthers were the top unit, things got rough as they dropped a pair of late-season matches to limp into the playoffs.

That did not matter, though, as the Panthers rolled past St. Ray’s in the semis and then got the win in the title clash. Vasquez led the Panthers with 22 points against St. Ray’s while Corsinetti added 14, Batista 12 and Salvatore 11.

“Those rough patches, those were just learning experiences for us. It just helped us get better and prepare for these moments,” said Salvatore. 

The Panthers will now take on Smithfield in the open state tournament on Thursday. Although Johnston still has some unfinished business, the team will enjoy the DII win and celebrate with each other.

“This group was probably the closest group that we have seen relationship-wise ever. This is a tight group that has played together since they were in fifth grade and this was the cherry on top for them. For me personally, coaching them, it is a big part of what gave me that passion with the game of basketball,” said Bedrosian. “To finish on top with them is a dream.”


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