Middletown's Matthew Steuerwald is defended by Newington's Josiah Ross during the Blue Dragons 58-53 victory at NHS last Tuesday.
Middletown boys’ basketball built a big lead before needing a pair of offensive rebounds late to hold off Newington, winning 58-53 at NHS last Tuesday night.
Junior Elijah Wilborn scored eight quick point as the Blue Dragons jumped out 10-0 just three minutes into the game.
Wilborn’s stellar night was just beginning, as the 6’7” center finished with 15 points, 17 rebounds, and 7 blocks. He also delivered a highlight reel assist in the second quarter when he grabbed a defensive rebound before one-handing a perfect 60-foot bounce pass to Mekhi Toler for a transition layup.
“We’re always looking for him, how could you not,” Middletown coach Rick Privott said of his uber-talented big man, “We basically want to take what the defense is giving. If they’re giving us the inside, we’re going to get it into him and if our three-point shot is on we are very tough to guard.”
The Blue Dragons were cruising to runaway victory, leading 36-17 at the half, before the home team slowly chipped away in the second half.
Newington scored the first eight points after the break, ignited by the energy on both ends of the court from Zion Bennett, who scored 9 of his team-high 11 points in the second half.
Gavin Gray scored 10, while Alex Cucuta and Trey Guest each added 8.
“We had to take care of the ball and we had to block out and rebound. The first half we couldn’t have done a more poor job and as coaches it reflects all of us. After three days of work we put into preparing it just didn’t show and they did a great job at attacking us. They made us pay, pay, and pay,” said Newington head coach Ed Quick, who adjusted at halftime, “We told [the players] we’re going to win the first two to four minutes. We’re going to get good shots, we’re going to attack, we’re going to sprint back and rebound. Gavin and Alex got hot, along with Zion, and I thought we started to play together.”
Quick’s team whittled the lead down to single digits midway through the fourth, using an 8-3 run highlighted by back-to-back buckets from Bennett, who made a contested layup and then hit a spinning jumper from 17 feet out.
With the under a minute to play, Gray drained a three to narrow the deficit it 57-53.
Newington fouled to preserve time and Middletown missed the ensuing and-and-one foul shot but senior Kai Cottle gobbled up an offensive rebound, which led to another intentional foul.
Middletown’s Chace Petgrave misfired on the ensuing one-and-one before grabbing his own miss and again getting fouled, this time making one of two free throws to put the game on ice.
“I never feel it’s over, ever. I always feel if you’re down it just takes one more play, one more shot, one possession,” said Quick, who liked how his team responded in the second half, “We just didn’t come up with two important rebounds and we just spent about 15 minutes talking about that.”
Petgrave, who finished with 13 points, is one of four junior starters, along with Wilborn, Toler (14), Matthew Steuerwald (6). Fellow junior Dariyon Drake came off the bench, adding 10 points.
“I’m very impressed with the younger guys. We’ve got a lot of youngsters, we have Marshall Butler who is a sophomore, and we have a good JV/freshman group. I’m pleased with them,” said Privott, whose only senior is Cottle, “I liked how the team moved the ball and played press defense in the first half.”
Privott’s team experienced the sting of last year’s cancellation when the season was cut short in the first round of the Division II tourney, prior to the Blue Dragons first round matchup against Wethersfield.
“They are just happy to be out here. You have to play with a mask on, there are new rules and everything is different, but they are playing basketball. They are working hard in practice the same way they did before the pandemic. We’re just grateful to be out here playing,” added Privott, “I like the effort. We’re pushing it, our conditioning is good, and I think the kids are playing well together. I like the chemistry, the kids are sharing the basketball and playing good solid defense.”
Middletown finished the week with a 63-29 win over Rocky Hill, upping their mark to 7-1.
Newington lost to Platt last Thursday, ending the week 4-4.
Quick, who only has two seniors, noted that he will continue to play the guys that perform the best in practice. He has a deep bench, evidence by the nine different players that scored against Middletown.
“We don’t have that superstar, but we have great guys. I wouldn’t trade them for the world and my job is to get every ounce out of them. It has been challenging because we’re inexperience, but we’re lucky to be playing. It’s competition, it’s an opportunity to represent Newington High School, the town, all the travel things we do from the youth on up. We want to show them this is what we do and that it’s important to us,” stated Quick, who aims for a strong finish, “I want to see us make every defensive position important and translate how hard we work in practice to the game. The good news tonight is the second half was much better than the first half. I was proud of that and I’m proud of these guys that they owned it and they took responsibility.”
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin