Cromwell's Gianluca Albert defends Portland #2 Harrison Collins as #15 Eli Evison looks on during the Panthers 55-51 victory on Jan. 18.
Coming off a two-week COVID hiatus, the Cromwell boys’ basketball looked lethargic, scoring only 15 points in the first half before flipping the switch to come from behind and hold off Portland, 55-51, on Jan. 18 at CHS.
“It wasn’t the points—it was the lack of effort; the lack of focus,” Cromwell head coach John Pinone said of the first half performance. “We missed free throws, missed assignments on defense, and didn’t follow the scouting report. Those are the things that upset us.”
Trailing 24-15 early in the third, the Panthers used a 15-4 run to take their first lead of the game at 30-28 on a three-pointer from Jake Salafia. Salafia knocked down two more triples during the quarter as the team exchanged six lead changes.
“Cromwell did a good job, especially in the second half, at getting us out of our rhythm a little bit,” said Portland head coach David Bradbury.
Sophomore Victor Payne was the catalyst behind the third quarter turnaround, scoring 14 of his game-high 22 points in the quarter.
“He put in the time in the summer and when he came back you could tell he worked on his game,” Pinone said of Payne. “He’s a good ball handler for a guy his size and he’s great in transition. We’re at our best when we’re in transition.”
Bradbury said that Payne changed the complexion of the game, “He’s a tremendous player. He got going a little bit and we had trouble keeping in front. We let some of their lefty shooters get hot from the corner and we were helping way too much. That dictated that third quarter.”
Cromwell’s lead grew to nine points in the fourth when Louis Friend grabbed an offensive rebound and scored with 2:10 left in regulation.
On the following possession, the Panthers had a chance to put a vice grip on the game but Portland grabbed an offensive rebound and Eli Evison canned a three, prompting an 8-1 run by the Highlanders.
In the closing minute, the Highlanders cut the deficit to 53-51 on a layup from Joe Rusczyk.
Portland’s Jake Thompson then drew an offensive foul on the ensuing inbounds and the visitors had a chance to take the lead but Evison missed a layup in the waning moments.
Gianluca Albert sank two clutch free throws to close out the game with 3.5 seconds remaining.
“We were out for two weeks with the COVID shutdown, so we were rusty at first and coach got into us a little bit and that woke us up. We started scoring and playing good defense,” said Albert. “We were lucky enough for [Evison] to miss that layup and I knew I had to make the free throws.”
Albert scored 20 points, including 11 of Cromwell’s 15 first-half points to keep the Panthers within striking distance.
“I’m a captain this year and I feel like I’ve stepped into a bigger role,” added Albert, who has assumed a bulk of the offensive responsibilities with Payne. “[Victor] is a really good player. He has a ton of skills and I know he can do anything on the court. He’s really stepped up and done well this year.”
Because of the early deficit, Pinone used a short rotation and liked how the team responded in the second half, but was dissapointed with their inability to close out the game. He was particularly upset at Portland’s late surge, starting with Evison three following the offensive rebound.
“It almost cost us the game because we didn’t aggressively go after the ball. We’re not a physically aggressive team, we don’t play with anger,” said Pinone, “But I’ve got to give us credit, we were down nine to start the second half and we clawed our way back. Especially after the way we played in the first half, it could have been a long night. We found some energy in the third and fourth quarters and we got the W.”
Because of the COVID-precautions, it was Cromwell’s first game in 15 days. The Panthers had won their first five games over a 15-day span and the win over Portland improved them to 6-0.
Evison led Portland with 18 points and Rusczyk added 15. Thomson had seven and Harrison Collins had six. The Highlanders responded by closing last week with a pair of wins over Simsbury (1/19) and East Hampton (1/21) to bring the team’s record to 6-5 this season.
Cromwell entered this week 8-0 after beating Old Saybrook, 71-47, on Jan. 21 and Valley Regional, 42-31, on Jan. 22. Albert scored 32 in the win over Old Saybrook and the 12-point win over Valley Regional was Cromwell’s seventh victory by double digits this season.
Not bad for a team that graduated seven players, including all five starters, from a season ago.
“It’s all of us, it’s a team effort,” said Albert, who agreed with his coach. “We have to be more physical out there. We have to get better in practice and our mindset has to be there.”
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin