By JOHN GORALSKI
Mike Pagano wasn’t immune from the hushed whispers when he walked down the halls of the high school. The conversations in the cafeteria seemed to cut him to the core. Some were supportive. Some were outright rude, but no matter where he went, Pagano and his teammates weren’t able to escape the conversations.
“I got stuff all the time. They’d tell us we’re bad. It was very difficult,” said the senior guard. “That was probably the worst part of all of it, having to face everyone in school.”
The last time that the Blue Knight basketball team won a varsity game was on Dec. 20, 2015 in a gym more than an hour away from home. Fans have to go back to January 2013 to recall the last win in the Southington gym.
For 25 games, the Knights have trudged through the losses. Some were in overtime. A few were decided in the final minute. Some were decided by double digits, and some were missed at the buzzer. None went in Southington’s favor.
Along the way, Pagano and his teammates suffered the criticism. That must have been running through his mind when Pagano stroked a three pointer in the opening minutes against Hall. Kyle Borawski hit a three pointer. John Mikosz converted one inside and outside the arc.
Southington sprinted out to a 17-10 lead at the end of the first quarter, and the jeers finally turned to cheers in the Southington gym.
“I feel like we proved them all wrong today, and I feel like we can prove them wrong with every game from here out,” Pagano said about the team’s critics. “This one was big. We’re on the right track now.”
The Knights never let up. Pagano picked apart the Hall defense, going 13-for-16 inside the arc and finishing with 31 points. Kyle Borawski peppered the Warriors for 18 points and seven rebounds.
Mikosz did his part with nine points, and Mike Taylor (5 points) paced the offense with four assists. Jeremy Mercier dropped in a pair of baskets as the Knights shuffled eight players onto the court.
Southington led by 14 at the half, traded baskets in the third quarter, and held on for a 67-56 win.
The victory snapped a seven game losing streak this winter and a 25-game skid that stretched back to last season’s opening week.
“It feels pretty darn good. It’s not just the win, it’s how we won,” said Blue Knight coach John Cessario. “When you look at some of our collective efforts and the application of all the things that we’re trying to do—with old and new guys—it feels really good.”
On the other hand, Cessario said that one win wasn’t the goal. The coach hopes that the victory can start a mid-season resurgence for his young team. After all, Hall entered the game as the only other winless Class LL squad. Could this be a turning point for the Knights? Cessario said that his team has yet to play to their potential.
“We have yet to play a full 32 minutes,” said the coach. “I thought guys were getting a little loose when we went up 14, but we had to reinforce, repeat, reinforce, repeat. It’s the mental part of the game that every team has to endure. Whether you’re up one with 12 seconds to go or up 13 with 20 minutes to go, you have to play the game the right way at all times.”
On the other hand, the victory might finally quiet the team’s critics. Without the weight of the losing streak, the Knights can finally get back to basketball.
“I feel like we have to get back in the gym. Like coach said, we can’t get too confident with this win,” said Pagano. “We have to focus on each individual game. We can’t focus on the final result of the season. It’s one game at a time. I think if we do that, we can make the playoffs.”
It’s still an uphill battle, and that was proved three days later when the Knights suffered a 67-56 road loss in Simsbury. The Tomahawks smothered Pagano, holding the Knight scorer to a season-low six points. The Knights fell behind early, but regrouped and came back.
Borawski answered the call with 15 points. Jeremy Mercier scored 12 points, and Nate Blitz added 10. The 17-point halftime deficit proved to be too big, but Southington managed to outscore Simsbury in both of the final quarters.
Now, the Knights (1-8) will look to build on their recent success. Southington will face Newington (7-2) and New Britain (5-4) this week as the boys try to build some momentum.
“I told these guys that you win with humility and you lose with dignity,” Cessario said. “You never get too low after a loss, and you never get too high after a win. Simsbury’s a good team. It’s about getting time to prep and getting back in the gym to iron out those wrinkles. We have a little bit of momentum, but we’re still [1-8]. We still have wrinkles to iron out, and that will be our goal.”