By KEVIN ROBERTS
Southington boys basketball started the final three-game stretch of its regular season with a very significant win. It ended with back-to-back losses and a 12-8 regular season record.
On Feb. 13, the Blue Knights defeated Conard, 73-64, to wrap up the program’s first conference title since the 1997-98 season. During that 1997-98 season, former coach John Salerno led Southington to a 19-4 record, a division title and a Class LL state quarterfinal round appearance. The Knights were 13-1 in CCC play that season.
“He was an incredible father, husband, mentor and coach,” current Southington coach John Cessario said of Salerno.
Now, Cessario is in charge, and the Knights are back atop the conference with a CCC West Division title.
“It is an achievement that can never be taken away from this tremendous group of people coming together to play this game,” Cesasrio said. “These players have always been a driven group and it is very much a deserved reward.”
In between division games against Conard and NW Catholic, Southington took a trip down Route 10 to face Cheshire on Feb. 15. The Knights dropped that game to the Rams, 49-40. On Monday, Southington traveled to West Hartford to face NW Catholic and returned home with a 52-51 loss.
A three-game stretch that began with a great win ended with a pair of tough losses. It doesn’t diminish what the Knights accomplished in the second half of the season. After going 4-6 in the first half of the season, Southington won its first eight games in the second half and finished 8-2 for an overall record of 12-8.
“The regular season was fun watching players excel and get better day in and day out,” Cessario said. “They came together to turn a subpar start into a promising finish.”
The Knights played one of their finest offensive games of the season in the Feb. 13 win over Conard. The 73 points were a regular season-high for Southington, and it happened because of good balance and unselfishness.
“Three of our four players were in double figures, with two at eight points and two others at six,” Cessario said. “It showed how everyone contributed shooting the ball and finding the open teammate. “Ryan Gesnaldo scored 13 and Jake DelMonte did what he does best and that’s bring energy, athleticism and drive for our players to feed off of.”
Colin Burdette led Southington with 15 points while Jared Kelly (3 3-pointers) and Gesnaldo (3 3-pointers) each tallied 13 points. Adam Hunter and Jake Napoli both struck for eight points while Billy Wadolowski and DelMonte added six points apiece. Jacob Flynn rounded out the offensive attack with four points.
Southington totaled 25 assists to just five turnovers (5:1 assist to turnover ratio). Seven players had two or more assists in the game, led by seven from Burdette. Gesnaldo and Kelly each dished out four assists while Napoli, Wadolowski, Hunter and Flynn all had two assists.
The good shooting and aggressiveness present in the Conard win disappeared in the losses to Cheshire and NW Catholic. The Rams held the Knights to 26.4 percent shooting overall on Feb. 15. Seven Southington players scored, including Burdette with his team-high 13 points. Hunter and Napoli scored six points each while Kelly and Flynn tallied five points apiece.
In West Hartford on Monday, the Knights got off to a good start against NW Catholic and were ahead, 16-8, with 48.3 seconds left in the first quarter. The Lions got a basket, and then put up a shot after the first quarter buzzer that was counted as good. Those four points were the first salvos fired in a 15-0 burst by NW Catholic, which claimed a 23-16 lead.
Southington didn’t register its only two points of the quarter until Burdette hit a shot in the lane in the final seconds. NW Catholic went to halftime ahead, 23-18, then blew the game open in the third quarter. The Indians opened up a 41-25 lead after three quarters and led by as much as 17 points in that quarter.
NW Catholic was ahead, 51-37, with less than two minutes remaining in the game, but Southington put together a furious 14-1 run down the stretch to make the home team sweat. Shots that weren’t falling in the second and third quarters started falling. Gesnaldo had a three-point play, then Kelly and Hunter made 3-pointers. A Hunter layup with about 18 seconds left cut the deficit to three points, 51-48.
After a NW Catholic free throw, Flynn drained a corner 3-pointer in the final seconds, but the clock doesn’t stop on a made basket in high school basketball. The clock ran out with Southington coming up one point short. Burdette scored 14 points and Flynn added 10 points while Kelly, Hunter and Gesnaldo all tallied nine points.
“We need to maintain the fundamentals that have brought us success throughout the season,” Cessario said. “We have missed shots that we have typically made recently and we need to embrace road environments. We need to take on the adversity that two straight losses has brought us and channel things to what positive players can accomplish together.”
Up next: Southington began play in the CCC Tournament on Thursday.
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Kevin Roberts, email him at KRoberts@SouthingtonObserver.com