By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – When you’re mired in a bit of losing streak, every game seems like a big one when looking for that next elusive victory.
And that fact is especially true when you’re on the cusp of state tournament qualification.
Off a blazing 7-4 start to its season, the Bristol Eastern boys basketball team has been stuck in a bit of a rut – losing three straight games – and with a winless, but hungry, Plainville team entering the Thomas M. Monahan Gymnasium on Monday, Feb. 4, the stakes were indeed high all around.
All it would take was a win against the Blue Devils and its ticket for the postseason would be punched.
However, that would mean that Plainville would have to cooperate and the Blue Devils had no intention of doing anything of the sort.
Eastern turned a one-point halftime deficit into a seven point push by the end of three-quarters and hung on to beat Plainville 55-44 in a CCC South extravaganza from Bristol.
The victory propelled the Lancers to 8-7 on the year, qualifying the squad for the state tournament for the sixth straight season, while the Blue Devils fell to 0-16 with four games left to play.
Kevin Love – Eastern’s leading scorer on the season – contributed with 14 points and a game high 15 rebounds.
But, unlike the first time when he buried Plainville for 33 points, the Blue Devils wouldn’t let Love go off offensively as the visitors used a combination of box-and-one, different zones, and other junk defenses to keep the pressure on the sophomore.
Plainville’s Tyler Favreau and Thomas were both extra physical with Love and allowed him precious few looks at the hoop until he escaped with a couple critical makes late down the stretch.
Eastern’s Ryan Chiasson proved to be an irritant all night long and picked up a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds while Mike Belton led the Lancers with 17 points and cashed in on a career high nine rebounds.
Plainville’s defense kept Bristol’s guards in check as the duo of Gabe Ungaro and George Taylor were forced into 3-of-16 shooting from the field and netted just 10 points in the game.
Eric Fischer was outstanding on the evening for Plainville, netting a game best 22 points while also hauling down 12 rebounds and blocking countless Eastern shots.
He hit baskets from inside and out and when the Eastern defense pushed him to the brink, Fischer pushed right back with drives to the hoop and blazing three-point bombs.
“Fischer’s a talented kid,” said Eastern coach Mike Giovinazzo. “He could go to the hoop, he could hit pull up jumpers, shoots three-pointers…he’s a very tough match-up. Mike (Belton) did a great job on him the first time we played him but he made some adjustments tonight and he was really tough.”
Shane Pugliese chipped in with 10 points off the bench and played his usual good defense while Thomas scored all seven of his points in a first period attack.
Brian Dostaler also contributed to the cause with four points – two of those coming off a critical offensive rebound and put-back to lead the Blue Devils.
One of the critical moments of the game came in the closing moments of the third period as Plainville, with the ball and trailing by only three points, lost a chance to make it a one-point game or tie things up.
Chiasson and Plainville’s Austin Butler were battling for position and the battle got a bit heated.
Butler was called for an offensive foul and then shoved Chiasson in the back after the play, resulting in a technical foul and, unfortunately for the sophomore, fouling out of the game off the play.
It was a critical miscue and instead of being one-possession away off the lead, Plainville was trailing 41-34 after three completed frames.
“It was a learning experience,” said Plainville coach Marc Wesoly of the Butler play. “He’s a sophomore and (Chiasson) is a senior and he knows how to play the game. Chiasson gets a little chippy with (Butler) and he kind of lost his cool. It was a sophomore mistake and that’s what I told him.”
“We needed him out there, it hurt us but we didn’t lose the game because of it…he knows that and he’ll learn from it.”
For Eastern, that technical foul and ensuing points were a big lift for the team.
“It not only gave us points, it gave us energy because we hadn’t been playing with much until then,” said Giovinazzo. “It woke us up and we started playing better on both ends of the floor after that.”
To Plainville’s credit, the squad never gave up and cut the deficit to 49-44 with 1:53 left to play.
However, that’s as close as Plainville could get in the game as Eastern scored the final six points to seal the deal.
The Blue Devils fell behind early in the game, trailing 15-5 off five straight points from Belton with 4:14 left in the first quarter.
Plainville hung around to end the frame – getting another basket from Fischer off a brilliant feed from Thomas – as Eastern led 20-10 eight minutes into things.
Belton hit his third three-pointer of the game with 7:03 left in the second quarter as Eastern’s lead was 23-14.
But Plainville’s defense came alive and Eastern went over 6:30 without scoring a single point.
Fischer scored seven points of Plainville’s 12-0 push and off that offensive rebound and hoop by Dostaler, it propelled the Blue Devils to a 26-23 edge with 1:35 left in the half.
“It’s the effort that these kids give,” said Wesoly about Plainville’s second period success. “It started with defense. In that second quarter, we come back, we’re up one at halftime (and) that’s what we’re about. We were down but we didn’t give up.”
“We did not give up at all and I’m so proud of the kids right now.”
Plainville led 28-27 at the half and to start the third frame, it was a back and forth affair again.
An offensive rebound and put-back by Love was met with a quick turnaround from Fischer that kept the visitors in front.
But Eastern ended the quarter on a 12-4 jaunt and after the Chiasson free throws – via the Butler technical foul – and a quick jumper by the senior, the Lancers reassumed control of the contest and led 41-34 with one period left.
“They were a hungry team,” said Giovinazzo of Plainville. “You could see it in the style of play. It was very physical and aggressive. I told (my players) at halftime, you’ve got a team that wants this bad. And their intensity level is high. I said (to the players) you’re going to match it in order survive in the second half and we did.”
Plainville’s offense went a bit cold in the fourth quarter as the squad scored one hoop over the first 4:23 of the stanza.
Two free throws by Belton with 4:13 remaining made it a 45-36 game in Eastern’s favor.
Impressively, the Blue Devils made one last gasp run and off an 8-4 push – with blazing three-pointers coming from Fischer and Pugliese – Plainville made it a five point game with 1:53 left.
But Plainville was forced into full court pressure mode from there, allowing Chiasson to move the ball up the floor and he found Love open for two lay-ups to stretch the lead back to double figures again late into things.
“We’re a pretty good team if you press us,” said Giovinazzo. “That seems to be some of our best offense when teams press us. It kind of opens up the floor and when we handle the ball against pressure, we do a good job.”
Love and Ungaro scored the final seven points of the game for the Lancers as Eastern got its playoff qualifying win and defeated Plainville by 11.
“We only got one starter back from last year and another senior starter that didn’t get big minutes last year,” said Giovinazzo of his team. “To come out and win eight games with this group, I think they should be very proud of themselves.”