By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – Completing a three-game, home sweep of its state tournament contests, the Bristol Central boys basketball squad were put to the ultimate test on Friday, March 14.
The Rams – the third-ranked team in all of Class L field – took on No. 11 Farmington in a quarterfinal showdown from Bristol.
And after a huge third quarter surge, Central took the lead for good and rolled up a 77-59 win to advance to the semifinal round of the tournament.
The Rams earned a date with second-rated Career Magnet on Tuesday, March 18 in a contest played from New Britain High School. The winner moved on to the championship tilt at Mohegan Sun this weekend.
Down by one with 6:29 left to play in the third quarter, Central used a sizzling 19-7 run over a stretch of 4:44 to make it a 49-37 game in the Rams favor.
Ahead by three points, Central’s L.J. Johnson banged in a three-pointer from the left side of the court, then smashed one in from the opposite side.
And to finish off the jaunt, Manny Severino flipped in a three-ball of his own as Central’s 12-point lead was quickly a big deal.
“Those were all off loose balls,” said Central coach Tim Barrette of those three-point bombs. “I told my guys at halftime that loose balls were the key to this game. When you’re in this type of situation now, in the elite eight – and that’s (Farmington) a good basketball team out there with good basketball players – you’ve got to get every possession.”
“Every possession you can (get), will give you an extra attempt and those (three-pointers) were good looks too and that was half the battle.”
Once again, eight warriors entered the contest in crunch time for the Rams and each made game-changing plays.
Severino led Central with 20 points, eight rebounds, and five steals. Johnson smashed in 16 points – drilling four three-pointers in the fray – while also snaring five rebounds in an incredible long-range shooting display. Jacob Collins netted 15 points and seven rebounds. And Joey DeFillippi added eight points – all from the free throw line – and dished out four assists. Landin Rutledge hit for six points. Ty Hamel collected eight points and four rebounds. Once again Kyle Pileski came through with two assists. Meanwhile, Devin Francis hit a big second period three-pointer on his way to four points and a rebound.
“It’s a team game and I thought we played well all-around,” said Barrette of his squad. “Landin struggled in the first half and made a couple big hoops in the second half to get us on the run. I’ll tell you what, Manny played good defense on Obi (Momah) all night. That’s a tough match-up for him but Severino played well.”
“And L.J., that’s the best game of his career, hands down.”
Momah – as talented as they get at 6-foot-7 – led all players with 22 points, displayed a smooth stroke throughout the contest, and was ultra disruptive around the rim.
“Obi’s a great basketball player. He’s going to have a great career,” said Barrette of Momah, who is attending Marist on a basketball scholarship in the fall. “He’s even a better person (and) that’s what I like to say about him. He’s a stand-up individual, he doesn’t say anything when he plays, and he’s definitely a coach’s dream.”
Colin Cheeseman added 17 in the losing effort. Point guard Trey Witter showed grit and added 10 points to the fray.
Farmington was mint at the free throw line, nailing 25 of 27 attempts, which kept the Indians in the game.
The Rams held the rebounding edge at the half and allowed Farmington just one offensive rebound over the first half of play.
“If coach (Rich) Rose would vouch for me, the number one thing on our board tonight was who was going to win the battle on the boards,” said Barrette. “Who was going to be tougher was the question I posed. That’s what I judge heart on. Heart is loose balls and rebounding because it has nothing to do with size. Farmington had bigger size than we did tonight but we were able to get loose balls and rebound because we wanted the ball just a little bit more.”
The game featured nine lead changes and six ties. After trailing 4-1 out of the gate, Central got right to work.
The Rams used a 7-2 jaunt to get into the groove as a three-pointer from Johnson, a jumper by Collins, and a Landin baseline hoop made it a 8-6 game in Central’s favor with 5:25 left to play in the first.
But Farmington ended the stanza with nine straight points as Momah netted five consecutive to end the stint as the Indians led 15-8 after one.
Central opened the second tilt with a spurt as an 11-1 run – aided by two consecutive hoops from Hamel and a blistering three by Severino with 3:49 left before the half – made it a 19-16 game in Central’s favor.
Pesky Farmington wouldn’t relent and off two free throws from Witter with 42.2 seconds left in the second, the visitors held a 27-25 lead.
But Francis canned a huge three-point bomb with seven seconds remaining to close out the half and Central went into the locker room on top, 28-27.
The third period opened in the same back-and-forth fashion. Off two Momah charity tosses, Farmington was ahead again by one at 31-30.
Then, Central went on its game-changing run and to end the third period, Collins hit a hoop – off an amazing offensive rebound by Johnson – while the slick Johnson dumped in his fourth three-pointer of the contest to close out the period as the Rams were ahead by 15 at 54-39.
“In the first half, we were forcing a little bit from the three-point line,” said Barrette. “In the second half, I thought all the looks we took were good looks and we were fortunate to knock some of those down tonight.”
But as the home team battled through mounting foul trouble to open the fourth and final frame, Barrette decided to slow things down and made Farmington commit fouls against Central.
And while the slowdown changed the Rams’ high octane offensive game, the Rams managed to make its free throws throughout the frame.
“We got into foul trouble (and) we didn’t have any bigs (on the floor),” said Barrette. “So we couldn’t go to our normal offensive sets when we don’t have a big. So I said let’s use their disadvantage. Farmington was bigger than us and I said let them chase our best free throw shooters up top. We were already in the bonus at the start of the fourth quarter and we’re up 12.”
“If we could buy a couple of minutes, without our bigs in the game, we could finish this out.”
And the plan worked because off a free throw from DeFillippi, Central held a 61-50 tilt with 3:43 remaining in the game.
“We went through a four-minute stretch and we’ve only given up one extra point,” said Barrette using the slowdown tactics. “We were up 12, we cut off four minutes and we were still up 11. They were able to buy a couple of minutes in the offense, that’s not a normal game-plan I use, but it worked tonight.”
Time was becoming a factor for Farmington and the Indians couldn’t cut it to single digits.
But a flurry of activity closed out the game on the visitors for good.
DeFillippi found Collins for a lay-up and Johnson sank two foul shots to make it a 15 point game again, 69-54, with 1:38 left.
Cheeseman hit a three-pointer but DeFillippi countered with two free throws and then the hoop of the game was made by Severino.
Off a loud rebound by DeFillippi, the point guard charged up the court and found a streaking Severino down near the Farmington basket.
Severino gathered, flew through the air, and brought the crowd to its feet with a rim-rattling dunk – getting fouled in the process – as it became a 74-57 contest with 1:07 remaining.
One additional slam later by Hamel off an offering from Pileski, the game was all over as Central was now on the cusp of a state championship appearance and a 77-59 winner.
“There’s only four teams in Class L practicing this week and we’re one of them and that should be an honor,” said Barrette. “We have an opportunity and a chance to play at the ultimate goal, which is to play at Mohegan (Sun). We’ve been on a ‘March to Mohegan’ as I’ve called it for the last month, trying to have the ultimate opportunity but we have a tough game on Tuesday.”
“We’ll get back to the drawing board this weekend as coaches and we’ll get ready to go versus Career on Tuesday night.”