(Cromwell's Sean Melaven defends Valley Regional's Jason O'Brien)
Noah Budzik only needed a half of basketball to make his presence felt.
The junior scored a game-high 26 points, including 17 in the second quarter, helping Cromwell defeat visiting Valley Regional 65-49 last Tuesday night at Jake Salafia Gymnasium.
“Offensively we were able to get some shots for Noah and he hit some open threes. We were getting out in transition and getting him some easy looks and he did a good job in transition of getting to a comfortable spot. We try to bring him off screens to get him open and we did a good job at freeing him up. His threes gave us a little cushion going into halftime,” Cromwell head coach John Pinone said following his team’s fifth straight victory, “I think we defended much better in the second quarter. We got in the passing lanes and got a couple of steals.”
Budzik had a pair of buckets in the first quarter, including a layup in the final minute which provided the Panthers a 15-13 lead after the first eight minutes.
The energetic guard then proceeded to catch fire, scoring 17 of Cromwell’s 22 points in the second quarter. He drained five three-pointers in the decisive quarter and by halftime had outscored the road Warriors 22-19 by himself.
“Anytime that he’s open you know that ball is going in the hoop, because he’s really confident with his shot,” senior Sean Melaven said of Budzik, “If he gets fired up, we end up winning. He had a rough start against Westbrook in the first game, but every game since he’s been hot.”
Melaven is one of only three seniors on the court for Cromwell. He’s not only assumed a leadership role, but he and fellow senior Will White are the enforcers on the defensive end. The two are responsible for protecting the rim and have made the defensive frontcourt their personal playground.
The other senior is Luke Matchett, who runs the point and leads the team is assists.
The trio saw some action a season ago, but have had seen their roles drastically expand this winter.
“This year I’ve really had to step up. I had to start taking more charges and setting harder screens to get my shooters open. I really have to play defense because it comes down to the defensive end,” said Melaven, “Our coach likes to see us get into it with the other players. Not with our mouths, but with our game. He likes to see us get really fired up.”
“It all begins and ends of the defensive end,” added Pinone, “If we defend, we can compete with anyone. If we can’t defend, then we’re in trouble.”
The home team had a defensive lapse in the third quarter, allowing Valley Regional to score the first seven points following the break. The Warriors totaled 21 points in the third and senior Jordan Moran scored 11 of his team-high 18 points in the quarter.
The third quarter was also not kind to Budzik, who was injured after falling hard to the court on a layup attempt. He exited the game and did not return.
Without their leading scorer, the Panthers clamped down defensively in the final frame, limiting Valley Regional to a mere 10 points over the final eight minutes.
“It was our defensive pressure, we started stepping up on their shooters,” Melaven said about the defensive adjustments, “If we play defense like we know how and we limit our turnovers, everything will fall into place.”
With Budzik sidelined, Reese Reyes picked up the offensive slack, scoring six on his 19 in the fourth quarter. David Dewey also chipped in, scoring four of his ten points over the final eight minutes.
Valley Regional used a 7-3 run to narrow the gap to nine points early in the fourth, but Melaven responded, tallying his only bucket when he cut to the hoop and received a perfect pass from Moore.
The Moore-to-Melaven connection sparked an 11-4 Cromwell run over the final three minutes of regulation.
It’s been a remodeling year for the Panthers, who won 17 of 20 regular season games and advanced to the Class M quarterfinals a season ago. The team lost a handful on seniors to graduation, including All-State selection Peter Dewey.
The 2016/2017 season started with a loss to Westbrook, but the team has since won six in a row, including a 50-38 victory over Hale Ray last Friday night.
“We’re getting better. I think defensively we are a better team,” Pinone said about the team’s progress, “We didn’t have Will [Moore] for the first three or four games, so he gives us a little bit of height and a presence on the inside. Having him back helps us.”
“We got all of the nerves out of the way after the first game,” Melaven added, “We settled in after that. We started practicing harder and learning our plays and everything just fell into place.”
The young team is off to a positive start, but the basketball programs at Cromwell have set a high standard. A year ago, the team closed the regular season with nine straight wins and won the Shoreline Conference championship.
Melaven was a key component to the success a season ago and believes in the formula that could help the team duplicate that feat.
“We really need to limit the turnovers and step up on the offensive end if we want to be title contenders,” the senior added, “If we get our shooters open and play defense, then we win.”
“They put some pressure on our point guards and we didn’t do a really great job at handling their pressure. I’m sure we’ll see more of that coming down the road, so we’ll have to work on handling pressure and bring a second guard up to get some relief for those guys,” said Pinone, “They’re going to have to grow up quick. A lot of these guys have no varsity experience, so it’s kind of a new experience for them. We’re going in the right direction and this was a good win against a good team in the league. It’s home court and we have to protect it. We’ll take one at a time.”
Pinone’s Panthers are entering a pivotal part of their schedule and have an important home game on the horizon against East Hampton, who entered this week a perfect 7-0. The Shoreline Conference clash is Tues, Jan 17 at CHS. The game tips at 5 p.m.
Other Basketball Action Last Week
JD Monaco banked in a shot as time expired, lifting Rocky Hill boys’ basketball over Maloney 54-53 last Tuesday night. Alex Sikorski led the Terriers with 26 points in the victory over the Spartans. The Terriers ended the week with a 6-1 record after downing Bristol Central 64-59 on Thursday night. Sikorski scored 28 more points in the victory over the Rams.
The Rocky Hill girls also chalked up a victory over Maloney, winning 54-27 thanks to 17 points from Grace Fisher and 16 more from Nicole Lukens. On Thursday, the Terriers won their fourth straight, breezing by Bristol Central 67-15 behind 16 points from Lukens and 10 more from Lordina Orleans-Onyina.
Newington boys’ basketball is starting to resemble the team from a season ago, winning back-to-back games over Bristol Eastern (44-31) and Plainville (66-27). Jared Simmons combined for 32 points in the two wins and Matt McKinnon posted double-doubles in both games, combing for 22 points and 23 rebounds. The Indians entered the week having won three of their last four games.
Wethersfield girls’ basketball improved to 6-2 with a 59-48 triumph over Berlin last Thursday. Evie DeVaux had a terrific all-around game, tallying 20 points, four rebounds, four assists, and three steals. Nicole Gwynn added 11 points and 11 rebounds.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin