Defense drives Lancers

STORRS – A trip to Edwin O. Smith High School usually doesn’t conjure up any pretty memories for the Bristol Eastern boys basketball team.
In fact, the long bus to and from Storrs – and of course, a brutal 32 minute showdown with the Panthers – is pretty much a nightmare of epic proportions.
However on Friday, Dec. 21, it was the Lancers who created a nightmare for E.O. Smith as Eastern’s defense ruled the evening, leading to an impressive 45-27 road victory in a CCC Interdivisional challenge.
The win improved Eastern’s overall record to 3-1 while the Panthers fell to 1-2 on the campaign.
After never winning a game in Storrs over its history, the Lancers have won two straight games from E.O. – posting three straight victories against the Panthers overall – and the theme of the night for the visiting squad was defense.
Eastern’s suffocating zone defense forced Smith to shoot from outside for low-percentage opportunities and as the Panthers went 2-of-18 from three-point range on the evening, the home team had trouble putting points on the board.
And even when its shots were falling, Smith couldn’t string any significant runs together.
The Lancers found its defensive spots on the floor, rotated to the shooters and with a veteran like Ryan Chiasson talking it up, the Panthers’ struggles continued throughout the game.
“We started out in man-to-man (defense),” said Eastern coach Mike Giovinazzo. “But when Kevin (Love) got into foul trouble, we had to go into a zone and they just worked their tails off in that zone. They locked up every conceivable option that (Smith) had and then (Eastern) finished off the possessions by rebounding and it just was just a flawless defensive performance.”
Smith hit only 12-of-42 shots from the field (28.6 percent) and once Eastern took the lead midway through the first period, it was all but over.
Chiasson came away with 12 points, six rebounds, and two assists in the contest – playing the full 32 minutes – while George Taylor netted a season high of 10 points while adding two assists and one steal in the winning effort.
Kevin Love battled foul trouble throughout the evening but came away with eight points, four rebounds, two assists and rejected two shots in only 18 minutes of play.
But with Love picking up two fouls with 4:35 left to go in the first period, Eastern went to big men Victor Williams and Eric Therrien and the forward duo picked up the slack as the Lancers didn’t skip a beat.
“They did a great job,” said Giovinazzo of his bench. “Victor and Eric off the bench were solid. They played defense, they rebounded and they didn’t turn the ball over. Victor picks up a hoop off a missed shot. It was just great minutes buying time for Kevin.”
Juan Gonzalez also chipped in defensively and picked up a career high of six rebounds while Luke Smith also played tough in his stints on the floor.
The Panthers led 4-3 to start the fray but once Love was forced to the Eastern bench, Smith did not score again in the first frame.
Eastern netted the final five points of the stanza as a free throw by Chiasson, an offensive rebound and put-back from Williams, and a Taylor hoop put the Lancers out in front 8-4 after eight minutes of play.
Early in the second stanza, Chiasson went in for a lay-up and Mike Belton (four points, three rebounds, four steals) hit a leaner as the Lancers went in front 12-4 with 4:14 left to play in the half.
Smith finally got on the board as Connor Knecht hit a three-pointer – breaking an E.O. Smith scoreless streak of 8:33 – and at the completion of two quarters, the Lancers lead of 19-9 felt more like 39-9.
That’s how well Eastern’s defense was playing.
And in the third tilt, Eastern outscored Smith 14-4 as a late shot by Gonzalez – off a sweet feed by Love – made it a 33-13 game with only one frame left to play.
Off a 7-2 Eastern burst over the first 1:58 of the final period, Love made a conventional three-point play as the Lancers went over the top at 40-15.
But Smith’s crowd finally got the home team going and fed a bit off its energy.
Smith remained pesky over the final six minutes of action and managed to chop the deficit down to 15 off a 10-0 burst.
But still trailing 40-25 with 3:51 remaining, Eastern remained poised and kept it’s composure off a big hoop by Gonzalez to help quell the outburst.
“You try to tell them (the players) in timeouts that you know (Smith) is going to come at you,” said Giovinazzo. “You know there’s a possibility of a run and it’s how you handle (the run) that’s going to determine it. Yes, they hit a couple shots but then when they got into pressure, we shredded their pressure for easy shots and we took the hearts right out of them there.”
With 3:26 left to play, Gonzalez ended any chance of a comeback by snatching a defensive rebound, sprinting coast to coast and hitting a slick little lay-up as the Lancers went back up by seventeen at 42-27.
The Panthers scored only once more in the game as the Eastern posted its third straight victory.
“You want to talk about a young team growing and maturing as the season goes on, I mean even from game one, you can see the difference in the confidence level and their focus level,” said Giovinazzo after the win.