Cromwell boys basketball following a state championship victory at Mohegan Sun Arena on March 19.
After allowing 17 points in the opening quarter, Cromwell boys basketball got defensive as they rallied to defeat Ellington, 53-46, in the Division IV state championship at Mohegan Sun Arena on March 19.
It marked the program’s 10th championship and third state title in the John Pinone-era.
Pinone, the team’s head coach for over two decades, said he liked how his squad responded following the sluggish first quarter in which they scored only eight points.
“Our intensity kicked up to another notch,” stated Pinone. “We got some easy points in translation and got some easy baskets.”
Victor Payne led the comeback, scoring all of his team-high 23 points after the opening quarter.
Payne, the Shoreline Conference Player of the Year, was held scoreless for the first 13 minutes of action before netting five straight points on a pair of free throws and a spinning layup in traffic as Cromwell started the second quarter on a 6-0 scoring run to narrow the deficit to a single point.
Ellington was unable to generate any point over the first seven minutes of the second quarter before scoring four points in the final minute of the quarter to take a 21-16 lead heading into the second half.
Despite trailing at the break, Pinone said he remained calm and wasn’t concerned.
“We were down nine at the Shoreline Championship and we’ve been down in other games too.” stated Pinone. “We just needed to make some adjustments and do a better job on offense.”
A baseline three-pointer from Luge Gagnon temporarily gave Cromwell the lead in the third quarter and then the Panthers used a 10-point run later in the quarter to take the lead for good.
Payne scored eight points during the third-quarter spurt, hitting 8 of 12 shots total in the game as Cromwell shot 58% from the field as a team.
But the comeback victory was ultimately decided on the defensive end.
“Defense is a mindset, we talk about it every huddle,” stated Pinone, whose team held 21 of 27 opponents under 50 points this winter.
Pinone also credited junior Keanu Gomez for his defense on Ellington’s quick guard Darren Zahner. Zahner scored seven in the opening eight
minutes, but Gomez helped limit him to two points the rest of the way.
Captain Cody Murphy led Ellington with 23 points in the loss.
Senior guard Jake Salafia sparked Cromwell on both ends of the court in the second half rally, scoring nine of his 11 points, six coming on a pair of old-fashioned three-point plays.
Salafia said the slow start didn’t worry the team.
“We just had to pick up the intensity,” stated Salafia. “We knew we were the better team and we had to believe it and play like it too.”
Despite being the top-ranked going into the Division IV state tourney, Salafia added the team felt they were being underestimated.
“We had a lot of doubters, so to prove them wrong feels great,” stated Salafia.
Pinone added that because of those doubters his team had a “chip on their shoulder” going into the state tournament and was on a mission to prove that the Shoreline Conference (SLC) was one of the premiere conferences in the state
After an 18-2 regular season, the Panthers won the SLC by rallying to defeated Portland in the conference championship game and then eliminated Weston, Windham, and Griswold in the state tourney to reach the state title game.
Pinone said he thought it was the toughest road for any of his three championship teams.
“I think we earned this one; we beat some good teams along the way,” added Pinone.
Including the postseason, the Panthers won 25 of 27 games this winter, winning both the SLC and state championship in the same season for the first time since 2009.
Celebrating together as champions on the floor at the Mohegan Sun Arena was the last dance for six seniors at Cromwell.
Gagnon, Salafia (all-conference), Tyler Daniele (all-conference), Jack Corona, Jovan Marrero, and Logan Mure left a mark at CHS, bookending their high school careers with conference championships and adding another state championship banner to the “Home of the Champions.”
Longtime head coach John Pinone holds up the Panthers championship plaque following the team’s state championship victory.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin