They’re going to the NCAA Tournament. The Big Dance. March Madness.
No, not Providence College or the University of Rhode Island, although each won Saturday and kept their NCAA dreams flickering. Now we’re talking Johnson & Wales, the Providence college that produces top chefs, sommeliers, hotel managers and basketball players. The Wildcats punched their ticket to the NCAA Division III Tournament with their 86-75 victory over Albertus Magnus in the Great Northeast Athletic Conference championship Saturday at their Harborside Recreation Center. They will learn their first-round opponent during the selection show on Monday afternoon.
This is J&W’s third GNAC title. The 2011 Wildcats were the last champs and actually won their first-round game in the tournament.
This crew is special. Led by seven seniors who watched Albertus Magnus hoist the GNAC crown a year ago and vowed to reverse the outcome this season, Johnson & Wales has posted a 26-2 record and is ranked No. 14 in the nation in D-III. Let me repeat. 26-2. 14th.
But few basketball fans in Rhode Island know about it. I bumped into a former Providence Journal newsroom colleague at a downtown Dunkin’ Donuts on Friday and, after he noted PC’s loss the night before, I told him of J&W’s record, easily the best in the state. He shrugged, turned his attention to his cell phone, and muttered, “Division III. Nobody cares.”
I heard that refrain for more than three decades while covering sports for The Journal. I still wonder why people think that way, why they don’t pay attention unless it’s PC or URI on the court. If Tommy Garrick, Robert Lewis and Jarell Lawson played for the Friars or the Rams, we’d known their stories by heart. Garrick, son of the former West Warwick High and URI star, a leading player at St. Andrew’s in Barrington and this season a shining light for the Wildcats. Lewis, the Providence kid who was All-State at Central in 2011 and then attended prep school and North Platte Junior College before returning home to J&W. Lawson, a Central All-Stater and star of the 2012 state championship team who played at Glenville State College before transferring to Johnson & Wales.
Garrick scored 33 points, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked four shots in the GNAC title game. Lewis played 32 minutes off the bench, scored seven points and picked off four rebounds. Lawson buried a three-point shot, his only basket of the game, for a 17-point lead with 8:13 to play. He also had three rebounds.
And they’re not the only Wildcats with local ties. Matt Madoian is from North Kingstown, Mike Clark from Providence and La Salle, Rudy Brito from Pawtucket and CCRI. And the coach, Jamie Benton, grew up in Providence and played at La Salle and Boston College. He has led the Wildcats for 12 years.
They are going to the NCAA Tournament. Yes, it’s Division III, but we should still care. Go Wildcats!