By KEVIN ROBERTS
Eighth-seeded Southington boys basketball led for almost all of its CCC Tournament game against ninth-seeded Berlin on Feb. 21 inside the Walt Lozoski Gymnasium. The problem for the Blue Knights was the Redcoats led for the time that counted the most, which was the final 1:16 of regulation.
Holden Murphy’s three-pointer gave Berlin its first lead of the game, 51-50, with 1:16 on the clock. The Redcoats scored five more points after that and emerged with a stunning 56-50 victory over the Knights. Southington has lost three straight games going into the Division II state tournament. The losing streak includes the last two games of the regular season.
Jared Kelly and Colin Burdette each scored 11 points for Southington. The two guards combined for just five points in the second half, none in the fourth quarter. Billy Wadolowski tallied nine points while Jake Napoli added seven. The Redcoats were 19-for-27 at the foul line while the Knights went just 4-for-8.
Southington didn’t just lead for most of the game against Berlin…it was in control of the game. So what happened to the Knights?
“We froze, we stopped playing,” coach John Cessario said. “We treated the ball like a grenade instead of a pillow, and it’s supposed to be something you embrace instead of feel like you’ve got to get rid of. We had way too many turnovers, way too many, and unfortunately, we could have made a couple extra shots that just rolled in and out.”
Southington, which scored 47 points in the first three quarters, tallied just three in the final eight minutes. The points came on a Napoli free throw and a Ryan Gesnaldo short shot in the lane that happened to bounce in. The Knights pulled the ball back and ate time off of the clock. Cessario said there was a clock management aspect to the slowdown—which Southington has done on multiple occasions this season in the second half of games—but he still wanted points on the board.
“You always have to score. It’s not like we’re holding the ball for six minutes,” Cessario said. “We just need to score when the opportunities present themselves, and we need to stop [turning the ball over].”
Instead of Southington getting points, Berlin forced turnovers and closed the gap. The Knights were ahead, 48-38, with 7:43 to go in regulation. The advantage was shaved to just two points, 48-46, with around three minutes to go. Berlin had become the aggressors on offense and defense, and Southington was reeling.
“It’s about handling the ball and feeling good about having the ball in your hands. We never felt comfortable, and I don’t know why that was,” Cessario said. “There was always like a couple players who just didn’t look comfortable. I can’t speak on their behalf, but I can obviously speak from a coach’s perspective, and I didn’t feel we were comfortable with the ball.”
Gesnaldo got a short shot in the lane to bounce off of the rim and go in, but the Redcoats responded with a layup and called timeout, the score 50-48 in favor of the Knights with 1:34 to play. Berlin got the ball back, then Murphy made his 3-pointer. From there, the Redcoats got a layup and made three foul shots to ice the win.
For the first three quarters, Southington appeared to be headed to Hartford’s Bulkeley High School for a quarterfinal game against undefeated East Catholic. The Knights blitzed the Redcoats from the outset, building a 14-2 lead in the first six minutes of the game. The Southington advantage was 18-6 after one quarter. The Knights attacked and hit shots from both the perimeter and the lane.
A Burdette 3-pointer put Southington ahead, 28-14, with more than half of the second quarter gone. Berlin got to within nine points by halftime, 29-20. The Redcoats fought back to within five points, 35-30, in the third quarter, but the Knights built the lead to 12 points, 47-35, in the final minute. Murphy brought the margin back into single digits, 47-38, on a three-point play with 0.7 seconds to go in the quarter.
Napoli made a free throw 17 seconds into the fourth quarter, but it would take until inside the two-minute mark for Southington to score again. Once the Redcoats got the momentum going, it couldn’t be stopped.
“We are paying the ultimate price. We get to consider the conference tournament done,” Cessario said.
Up next: Southington was hoping to have another home game this season, this time in the first round of the Division II state tournament. The Knights were supposed find out who they play when the brackets were released on Wednesday by the CIAC.
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Kevin Roberts, email him at KRoberts@SouthingtonObserver.com