Cromwell boys’ basketball needed a herculean defensive effort in the fourth quarter to eliminate Haddam-Killingworth 54-46 in the quarterfinals of the Shoreline Conference tournament last Tuesday night at CHS.
“That’s a very good HK team. This was a good win. Our defense was the difference, we took over in the fourth quarter” said head coach John Pinone, whose team held the visiting Cougars to nine fourth-quarter points, “I give credit to our kids, we defended the hell out of them and they made some great shots. It was a total team effort, but our defense got it done.”
It was a far different contest than the season opener when the Panthers easily defeated the conference rivals, 62-39, on Feb 10.
The 46 points in the tourney game and the 39 points in the regular season contest were the lowest scoring outputs all season for Haddam-Killingworth.
Tuesday’s quarterfinal game featured seven lead changes and five ties in the first half as Cromwell’s senior center James Grodzicki and HK’s sophomore guard Mason Gorham traded buckets, each scoring 10 points in the second quarter.
Grodzicki finished with a game-high 19 points and Gorman led the Cougars with 17.
Trailing 26-25 at the break, Cromwell began the third quarter on an 8-2 run, which was countered by a personal 6-point run by HK’s Tate Callender.
Senior guard Connor Daly converted a contested left-handed layup in the closing second of the third, giving Cromwell a 39-37 lead headed to the final eight minutes.
Daly, who scored all seven of his points in the second half, continued to dictate the game in the fourth by blocking a shot to force a jump ball and registering steals on consecutive possessions as Cromwell went on a 7-point surge to take a lead they would not relinquish.
“We know we’re in better shape than most teams in this league because we practice really hard. We knew eventually we’d get a few stops and have a few balls bounce our way,” said Daly, “We just had to Keep pushing, keep playing hard, and we found a way to pull it out.”
Mike Morgan highlighted the fourth quarter push, scoring seven of his nine points in the final frame. The senior guard sliced and diced the Cougars defense, driving at will and getting to the foul line.
Down the stretch, Cromwell made only 7 of 13 free throws but hustle and determination from senior Zykarie Wilborn helped close out the game.
Wilborn made back-to-back offensive rebounds following missed free throws, allowing Cromwell to bleed precious moments off the clock late in regulation.
Pinone’s seniors accounted for 96% (52 of 54) of the team’s scoring in the tourney win.
“They’ve been playing together a long time, there’s always someone there each night. Justin [Valentin] made some shots, Connor had a great stretch, and then Zykarie made those rebounds,” recalled Pinone, “We’ve been in a lot of tough games where we were on the other side, but tonight we gutted it out and our defense was good. We were able to finish tonight and I was happy about that.”
Valentin’s shooting aided Cromwell in the first half, canning three shots from beyond the arc, including one in the closing moments of the second quarter to narrow a once six-point deficit to a single digit at the break.
“You can’t replace senior leadership when you have it out there. You can only get that by being out there playing,” Pinone said of his senior class, which also features Mett Pepe and Malcolm Mention, “I’m very happy for them because they’ve worked extremely hard under difficult circumstances.”
It was win #9 for Pinone and his boys, who won 7 of their last 8 regular season games following a 1-2 start.
Two nights later, Cromwell’s season came to an end in the semifinals, losing in overtime to Valley Regional.
It wasn’t the ideal ending for the seven seniors, however they left everything they had on the court during an uncertain season.
“We never know if it’s going to be our last game,” Daily said after the semifinal victory, “We play like it’s our last every single game and we were just excited to have a season. We’ve tried to give everything we have when we have the opportunity.”
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin