By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – The ebb and flow of Bristol City Series game is always something special to behold because frankly, anything and everything can happen.
And while it’s always a battle when the Bristol Central boys basketball team travels to the Thomas M. Monahan Gymnasium to take on Bristol Eastern, the showdown from Friday, Jan. 23 was a wild and wooly affair.
Off a game-opening 17-0 run, the Lancers (7-4) led from wire-to-wire to pick up an important 70-57 victory over the Rams in a CCC South tilt.
In a span of 3:43, the Lancers went a blazing 8-for-8 from the field as shot, after shot, after shot fell for Eastern – quickly establishing a 17-0 cushion.
But Central never gave up, never gave in as the Rams made it a two-point game at the half and midway through the third period, the visitors had a chance to tie things up.
Against Newington, Maloney and Bulkeley earlier in the season, large leads and advantages were lost by Eastern – leading to three tough defeats at the hands of CCC foes.
But against Central, the Lancers showed poise for the second straight affair and never relinquished the lead.
However, the 17-0 start of the showdown was quite an event to witness and one heck of a way for the home team to open things up.
“It wasn’t going to be like that the whole game,” said Eastern coach Mike Giovinazzo of the game-opening run. “And obviously, they clawed their way back into it. That was the kind of situation that we would not have been able to deal with earlier in the year.”
“We obviously withstood the charge, got back to basics, got good shots, went strong to the basket, played good defense [and] built that lead back up again.”
But off the run, Central made a spurt of its own, ending the first half on a 27-12 jaunt to make it a 29-27 contest at the half and it was anyone’s game for the taking.
“My guys expended a ton of energy and effort in the first half to cut that lead to two,” said Central coach Tim Barrette. “I couldn’t have been happier at halftime. They blitzed us right off the bat, and there’s no other word to use. Give [Eastern] credit. They came out hitting everything that they threw up.”
Eastern showed balance on offense as George Taylor III (20 points, eight rebounds, four assists), Kevin Love (19 points, eight rebounds) and Daron McKoy (18 points, five rebounds) led the charge.
Darieyn Tate chipped in 11 points and four rebounds while Austin Dias also added a hoop in the winning effort.
L.J. Johnson was Central’s leader scorer and he notched all 15 of his points off the bench and played some real physical defense that made an impact.
Landin Rutledge added nine points, Jamill Tolliver, and Jamil Hornesby each had eight while Jason Severino added an important five points to the mix for the Rams (8-4).
It was a wild opening run by the Lancers and as the points piled up, it seemed like the makes were never going to end.
Love started the run with a lay-up and Taylor added a three-point to give Eastern a quick edge.
Quickly after, Love canned his first three-pointer of the season and then Taylor canned back-to-back jumpers, which included a three of his own to make it 13-0 with 5:18 left in the first.
Finally, Eastern ended the flurry with a midrange jumper from McKoy and once Taylor hit the final shot of the burst, a bewildered Barrette called timeout as the home team had a 17-0 cushion on the scoreboard.
“I never remember being up 17-0 and definitely not in an Eastern-Central game,” Giovinazzo said. “Definitely not. I mean I didn’t even want to look at the score after a while because you start getting consumed by it and then you need to pay attention to what’s happening on the floor.”
But Central slowly got their offense unraveled as Hornesby hit a hoop. Later, Johnson and Rutledge canned threes. But by the end of the first quarter, Eastern had its highest scoring start to the season and a 25-12 lead.
Eastern, though, backed that 11-of-15 shooting from the field with a freezing 0-for-11 shooting clip – leading to a season low four second quarter points – and quickly, Central went on the attack.
Central had the deficit cut to six at 25-19 off a spin move and hoop from Johnson with 5:10 left in the half.
And while Eastern couldn’t throw the ball into the ocean from a boat, McKoy netted four free throws in the stanza and with 4:12 remaining before intermission, the Lancers were still on top 29-21.
“We were in chase mode all night,” said Barrette. “And it was difficult playing from behind when you have to chase a team with good athletes and good guards like Eastern has. We played from behind the entire evening.”
“We could never get over that hump and that was a huge, huge thing.”
Johnson, D.J. Dort, and Ed Rodriguez all hit shots to end the half and by the break, Central was hanging around at 29-27.
The squads exchanged runs to open the third stanza as Eastern used a 7-0 jaunt to go ahead 36-27 but off an 8-0 tilt from Central – capped by a conventional three-point play from Dort – the deficit was trimmed all the way down to 36-35 with 4:55 remaining in the third.
Tate followed up with two free throws. But Hornesby was quickly fouled – shooting a three-pointer – and the freshman was at the line for three charity shots looking to tie it up.
But he missed all three free throws and with 4:32 left in the third, another Lancers’ run was looming.
This time, a 12-3 dash by the Lancers – highlighted by a three-pointer from McKoy that was seemingly launched from the moon – made it a 50-38 game with one frame left to be played.
“We had three free throws to tie it up,” said Barrette. “We came away with none. We could never get over that hump. And we were right there. We just needed a little push.”
Pesky Central refused to yield and when Severino canned a three-point play with 6:12 left, the visitors were down just 52-45.
But Eastern wouldn’t open the door much more for Central and off two Rutledge free throws with 4:37 to play, the Rams still trailed 58-48.
And then McKoy went off for seven straight points and the game was all but over.
“We didn’t execute well enough,” said Barrette. “Eastern came back with that run to close the game and it took a lot [of wind] out of our sails. We worked so hard to get within a possession or two and when they pushed it out to 10, the floodgates opened.”
“The score was not indicative of how close we actually made this game.”
Taylor and Love were the offensive targets for most of the game but McKoy kicked it up a notch late with a free throw and two sizzling threes and with 2:37 left, Eastern was in change at 65-48.
“Once again, you’ve got to point to the balance we have,” said Giovinazzo. “We can score in a lot of ways. You saw that tonight. You saw Love posting up, you saw Darieyn Tate going the basket, you saw Taylor shooting perimeter shots – pull ups, drives to the hoop. We’re tough to guard.”
“That’s when we make those kinds of runs when you have a hard time matching up with us.”
The Eastern lead grew to 18 off a free throw from Love (70-52 with 1:11 remaining) before both benches were emptied.
Central closed the contest with a 5-0 charge. But in the end, Eastern’s game-opening run did-in the Rams as the Lancers came away with a 70-57 win.
“I couldn’t be prouder of my guys,” said Barrette. “I said that was a learning experience. I’ve never been part of a game where it was 17-0 [to start] and my guys did not give up. We cut it 13 at the end of one and we’re down to two at [halftime]. And we [just about] worked our way back.”
The victory was the second in a row for Eastern and sixth out of their last eight after starting the season at 1-2.
“They’re growing as a team,” Giovinazzo said.
NOTES…The crowd was hot for the game and was in it from the opening tap to the final buzzer. “The atmosphere was electric,” said Barrette of the game. “You can’t ask for a better atmosphere among the town of Bristol. It was a great game to coach in, great game to play in, great game to watch.”