By BRIAN JENNINGS
Blue Knight players’ eyes welled with tears, and Southington’s locker room was silent after their quarterfinal loss. Coach John Cessario said that he took a mental picture of his team in the locker room, and he’s going to remember it forever.
“When you get something this special, it’s going to hurt, unless you’re that team winning it all,” said the coach. “If you see the locker room now, which is a pretty privileged location, it was almost reassuring that we did the right thing.”
Southington’s tournament run came to an end on Saturday, March 10 after the Knights fell, 80-70, at No. 2 Waterford.
Coming into this season, the CIAC revamped the boys basketball state tournaments with five new divisions, categorizing schools by their postseason success in the past five years or so. Southington was placed in Division III and looked as though they had a better shot at a state title than they did when they were in Class LL the year prior.
They reached the quarterfinals of the state tournament for the first time since 2002 until their season ended with a 10-point loss to a team that were winners of 13 straight and once ranked as high as No. 8 in the state.
“We knew we were going to get this far,” said Blue Knight guard Colin Burdette, who led the team with a season high of 19 points in the quarterfinal game. “We knew from day one that we had a shot to make it to Mohegan Sun.”
The Knights were locked in a tie after one period of play and went punch for punch with the Lancers throughout the first half, but a three-pointer at the halftime buzzer put Waterford up by six.
The Lancers extended their lead to 14 points after the break, but the Knights hung around with the help of a hard-fought layup and a pair of triples by Cameron Clynes (12 points) in the third. They came as close as four points on a Burdette layup and free throw with just under two minutes remaining in regulation.
Burdette said that he didn’t let the crowd of around 1,000 spectators get into his head.
“This was probably the first time I played in this atmosphere,” said Burdette. “This was probably the best game that I’ve ever played.”
Waterford’s offense continued to attack though, and the Knights couldn’t contain them. Mikey Buscetto (28 points) either drove the lane and dished to Waterford’s forwards for easy layups or drew fouls on dribble drives to the basket, as the Lancers were in the bonus for most of the fourth. Both teams thrived off of second-chance opportunities, but the Lancers made the most of theirs from beyond the arc, canning four of their seven treys in the second half.
Jeremy Mercier (10 points) fouled out of the game around the three-minute mark, and Andrew Lohneiss (14 points) fouled out with just a minute and a half to play. The Knights went 11-for-22 from the foul line, while the Lancers went 19-for-31.
“We never looked at this tournament as like the five-game tournament,” said Cessario. “We just wanted to go into every game and compete, and we competed tonight. We did what we needed to do.”
Putting the season into perspective, Cessario said that there’s a need to build on the team’s commitment heading into next year.
“I’ve always stated to them that you can be interested in something, and there’s a vast difference between being interested in something and being committed to something,” said Cessario. “Your investment, time, life, and energy set you up for an emotional roller coaster, and we went through that this year.”
The loss ended Southington’s winter campaign. Southington finished the season at 17-8.
MARCH 9—The Knights advanced to the quarterfinals on Friday with a comfortable 64-48 victory over No. 10 North Haven at home.
The Indians came out flat and missed most of their field goal attempts in the first half with just five points in the second quarter. On the other side, the Knights shot a high percentage from the field and headed into halftime with a 20-point lead. They also went 14-for-18 from the foul line in the second half, going 17-for-22 in the game.
Lohneiss paced the offense with a season-high of 28 points on a triad of three-pointers, going 5-for-6 from the charity stripe. Mercier contributed with 13 points.
MARCH 5—It took their sixth extra period of the season, but the Knights began their tournament run on Monday with a 56-52 overtime victory over No. 26 Berlin at home. It was the first time the Knights advanced to the second round of state tournament since 2011, and it was also Southington’s first state tournament win with Head Coach John Cessario at the helm.
The Redcoats scored the first ten points of the game, but the Knights managed to pull within one at the half. Trailing by four with just over a minute to play in regulation, Mercier put back a missed three-pointer to bring the Knights within two. Following a missed free throw on the other end, Burdette missed a layup, and the Knights were forced to foul with 20 seconds left. But the Redcoats missed another free throw and left the door open.
On Southington’s next possession, Burdette redeemed himself by splitting two defenders on a dribble drive down the lane with an acrobatic, reverse layup that he tossed almost behind his head, sending the contest into overtime. With 7.2 seconds to spare, the Redcoats missed a contested three at the buzzer that fell short of the rim, making nine of their last 13 points of the fourth quarter on threes.
Tim O’Shea scored the first points of the extra period on a layup that resulted in a three-point play at the foul line, and Burdette extended the lead to five with a layup on Southington’s ensuing possession. The Knights pulled away by making seven of 14 free throws, as the Redcoats struggled at the foul line with just three of nine free throws in overtime, going 9-for-17 in the game. Most of Southington’s field goals came from second-chance opportunities, as the Knights outrebounded the Redcoats, 40-25.
Mercier paced the offense with 17 points and grabbed a team high of 14 rebounds, going 5-for-7 from the charity stripe. Lohneiss (12 points, 10 rebounds) and O’Shea (11 points, 9 rebounds) contributed.
For more in depth coverage, see our weekly print edition. To contact sports writer Brian Jennings, email him at BJennings@SouthingtonObserver.com.